How to deliver a data-driven presentation

Knowing how to develop and deliver a data-driven presentation is now a crucial skill for many professionals, since we often have to tell our colleagues a story about the success of a new initiative, the promise of a new business opportunity, or the imperative of a change in strategy — stories that are much more compelling when they’re backed by numbers.

In the past four years, data has become a bigger and bigger part of my own presentations, and I’ve enjoyed the luxury of working closely with data analysts, infographic designers and my own in-house speechwriter, which has helped me pick up some tricks on what it takes to create a successful data-driven presentation.

— As with any communication, start by thinking about your audience. Who are you presenting to, and how much do they know about the topic? A good rule of thumb is to look at the legend on your charts: If you can’t count on the audience knowing what each item in the legend actually refers to, you need to spend some time on setup before you get to the numbers.

— It’s easy to let the data overtake your presentation, so be sure you know the overall story you’re trying to tell, and use charts sparingly to support your story. You’re not trying to subdue your enemy through the sheer volume of data you can bring to bear on your argument; you’re using data strategically, when it provides clear and concrete evidence for the story you’re telling.

— It’s rare that anyone will retain all the actual numbers in your presentation, so think about the words that capture the idea, insight, or conclusion you want them to hold onto. Instead of simply throwing up a bar chart that shows levels of employee engagement versus different working arrangements, build to that key chart with a story about the impact of working arrangements on employee satisfaction — illustrated by actual human examples, if possible.

— As you present, remember that it takes people some time to digest a chart or data table. Take the time to spell out the story you see in the data so that it’s clear to someone who hasn’t been poring over that dataset for the past six weeks. Speak slower than you usually do, and consider pausing for a moment mid-chart, to allow people the time to absorb the data; even if you prefer to wait until the end of your presentation for questions, ask if anyone needs you to clarify the chart.

— While clarifying statements are helpful, that doesn’t mean you can neglect the visuals. If all you do is produce your charts with a tool like or Tableau — both of which will produce charts that look a heck of a lot better than what Excel spits out — you’ll immediately improve your data-driven presentations.

— Lastly, there is a lot of value in leaving people with a physical (or virtual) copy of your charts, so that they can look at the numbers more closely after your presentation. Since data-driven decks and reports tend to get circulated, make sure that any charts you include can stand on their own, without you speaking to them: Note the source of your data, make your legend clear, and annotate your charts with callouts that show people how to make sense of a specific data point.

(Alexandra Samuel is a speaker, researcher and writer who works with the world’s leading companies to understand their online customers and craft data-driven reports.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate