Q&A: Researcher with lots of numbers? Read on

Kristen asks,

“What advice would you give to a Researcher who desperately needs to jazz up slides upon slides of charts and numbers?”

Kristen, you’re not alone.  Many folks have a challenge with the fact that they live in data, charts, schematics, etc., that can make slides look like crap faster than you can say dogpile.  Here are the questions I always start with:

What is the audience going to see?

Yes, it’s an obvious question, but think about a classically-trained musician.  On the piece of paper they see music, and someone else sees dots and lines (if not a mess).  I don’t think we abandon all numbers or words (that’d be stupid).  Rather than just ask, “Who’s the audience?” I ask “How are they going to see this?”  To answer, you’ve got to know them enough to see through their eyes.

What is the nature of the communication?

Second step…start in analog.  Is this a meeting, a discussion, a collaborative or brainstorming effort?  Or a presentation?

Many times for small, collaborative communication scenarios (including online), you’re taking time to analyze, discuss, comment.  This means you may want all the numbers, and it may mean that it’s not really a “nice looking PowerPoint” discussion so much as a “readable document” discussion for which you might be using PowerPoint.

A presentation, on the other hand, connotes that you’re delivering a point of view with a purpose (to inspire, educate, or motivate).  If this is the case, we ask the next question:

What’s the story?

In a presentation you’re trying to get someone from Point A to Point B, and the point isn’t the numbers, it’s the story.  It’s the point.

NOW we’ve got something to tackle for jazzing up the numbers, because the questions are “What’s the big point?”, “What’s the point of this slide in this point of the story?”, and “What’s the best way to tell that part of the story?”

Many times that story, that point you’re making may have numbers involved, but the presentation isn’t about reading numbers, it’s about the story.

When you DO want/need to show numbers, here are a few tips:

One, think of numbers like images. It’s not only how our brain sees them, but it’ll get you leaning toward thinking about how the audience sees them…and where you want to direct their attention through formatting, color, etc.

Two, take out everything extraneous to the point. Have one point per slide…it’s hard enough to think visually for one idea, let alone multiple ideas at the same time.

Three, remember that “the point” might be a relationship between the numbers, not the numbers themselves. And since charts are numbers formatted to help make a point, think about what that format is communicating.

Four, create different slides. If you make two different points about the same set of numbers, create two different slides so that you can format each separately for attention and understanding.

Finally, learn more about color and fonts. I’m not going to tackle those big subjects here, but I do like Stephen Kosslyn’s treatment of those in Clear and to the Point:  8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations.

Thanks Kristen!

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