The goal of any presentation is to inform the audience about a topic … to present your data. Yet ask yourself: What was the last presentation you saw and how much do you remember? Odds are, you wouldn’t remember much more than one or two slides. How do we improve those odds?

One of our past eTourism Summit presenters, Aaron Pickering, Business Intelligence Analyst at Simpleview (and former TV weatherman) offers three key guidelines for telling the story of your data and making it memorable.

Are you smart enough to dumb down your data?

The goal of any presentation is to inform the audience about some topic. This is done to inform, make an argument, or to simply share the current set of knowledge with a specific set of people. PowerPoint and other software have made it easy to put together slides with a tremendous amount of data and information for these presentations. Typical presentations range in time from 30 minutes to well over an hour. Let us ask, “What was the last presentation you saw and how much do you remember?” Odds are, you wouldn’t remember much more than one or two slides. There have been studies that show that immediately after a presentation people might only remember one statistic and usually only have a vague understanding of the topic. How do we improve those odds? What key steps can we take to make sure our data informs the audience and leaves them wanting to know more?

Step One: Tell a Story with Your Data

Think back to when you were a kid and you were having story time. Are you able to close your eyes and still see the characters from your favorite stories? What is the story about? Chances are, you will be able to recall much of the story and even some details. Now think about a presentation you heard last month. Do you remember the main themes, the details of the charts? People tend to remember stories far better than just numbers and facts.

By using stories in our presentations, we drastically improve the ability of our audience to remember the facts we are trying to convey. When people hear a story, there is a natural curiosity developed and often they want to know what happens next. Not only do people tend to remember details more clearly when included in a story, they will also tend to be less critical of the specifics as long as they fit with the narrative.

To turn a presentation into a story, we need to think about building our presentation details into a climax and then proposing a solution. What is the “Big Idea” you are trying to get across? This should be a one to two sentence idea that you want your audience to walk away with after your presentation. After establishing your big idea, build out your presentation the same way you would write a story:

  • The Beginning
    • Why should the audience pay attention?
    • What is in it for them?
    • What is the context of the data (the big picture)?
    • Who is the main focus of the data?
    • What is the imbalance? What needs to change?
    • How do we achieve balance? What do we want to see happen?
    • The solution – how do we bring the changes?
  • The Middle
    • Incorporate external context – develop comparisons.
    • Give examples of the issue or past issues with the same situation.
    • Include data which demonstrates the problem.
    • What will happen if no action is taken?
    • Show potential options for addressing the problem.
    • Illustrate the benefits of suggested recommendations.
    • Make it clear that there is a unique position to make a decision.
  • The End
    • Make it clear what you want the audience to do.
    • Recap the more important points.

While every presentation is different, providing context, building to a climax, and offering resolution at the end will give the best chance that the audience will be engaged and interested in the subject matter.

Step Two: Simplify Complex Data

When preparing your presentations/story, keep in mind that the mind can only process and store a limited amount of information at any given time. To capitalize on this, we can use a few tricks.

People can spot differences more quickly than looking through a lot of similar objects. Look at the example below:





When looking at the group of numbers, count the number of times the number “3” shows up.

The correct answer is 6 times. To find the numbers, we had to look at the block of numbers and scan from left to right, top to bottom. As we scan across, we are asking our minds to remember how many 3s we’ve seen. This is not too hard, however it requires the audience to pay full attention to this activity or risk getting the answer wrong. Instead – we could present this block of numbers differently:





With just a bit of styling, we can ask the same question, “How many 3s do you see?” and the answer should just jump off the page! We are taking advantage of preattentive attributes in text. These are the same attributes that act as signals to the brain that say, “Hey look over here!” By using these attributes sparingly, we can call attention to the parts of our data and slides where we want the audience to look.

Here are a few attributes you might want to consider using

  • Color
  • Size
  • Outline (enclose)
  • Bold
  • Italics
  • Separate spatially
  • Underline (add marks)

By using these attributes, we can draw the audience’s attention – but how much information should we include in a slide? With meetings getting shorter and shorter, people seem to feel the need to stuff as much as they can onto a single or handful of slides. The problem with this approach is it is impossible to commit all of this information to memory.

Most people can remember about 4 – 7 pieces of information in their short-term memory. It is recommended that you include no more than five pieces of information on any slide with only one or two main points. Keeping the amount of data on slides limited might mean you need more slides, but those slides will be more effective. Following these guidelines can also encourage you to cut information which does not add much value.

Step Three: Focus Your Audience

Researchers at Tableau conducted a study tracking eye movements with dashboards displaying information. This study allows us to understand what people look at when there is a lot of competing information to view. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Use big numbers.  People tended to look at largest numbers first and paid greater attention to the context for those numbers.
  • Avoid repeating graphics. Repetition can cause people to lose interest. Showing the same graph over and over again with only small modifications tends to muddle the facts being illustrated.
  • Avoid spreadsheets. Spreadsheets don’t convey information quickly. If the audience cannot see the point in 3-4 seconds, don’t use the graphic to support your case.
  • Use maps and people IF they help convey your point. Eyes were drawn to figures of people or maps. If they are not important to your point – don’t include these – as they will draw a lot of attention.

Takeaway: Make Your Data Memorable and Your Seconds Count

When building a presentation, be mindful of the point you are trying to make. By telling a story and using some of the tips listed above, you have a much better chance of making your points memorable to your audience. Don’t forget, when putting together a presentation, you see the slides for an extended period of time, while your audience sees these slides only once and usually for only a few seconds, so make those seconds count!