Why Data Presentations are Terrible and How to Fix It

Imagine you’re at a conference, and you have to choose between two programs for your afternoon session.  Both presenters are experts in your field.  One presenter has gathered a huge body of data and will be presenting it all in a long PowerPoint.

The other presenter has amassed a similar amount of data, but this presenter uses stories to help you understand what the data means.

Which presentation would you rather attend?  Which presentation would be more memorable?

Data is great, but let’s be honest.  It’s more helpful to have someone interpret data rather than just dump it on us. If you’ve been in business for any length of time, you’ve been subjected to death by data.  Anyone sitting through the endless data dumps that leave your head spinning knows the truth: Data alone does not engage or inspire.

Enter Nancy Duarte, the preeminent storyteller of Silicon Valley who helps some of the world’s greatest brands and thought leaders bring their data to life through story.  Her firm, Duarte Inc. has created some of the important presentations in the world.

To create her latest book, DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story, Duarte culled through thousands of data slides from her clients in the consumer, tech, finance and healthcare industries to codify the language and structure that makes the best presentations so memorable.

Duarte says, “Storytelling makes the brain light up in a way no other form of communication does.”  She cites the Stanford research testing the memorability of facts versus stories.  When students shared a one-minute speech about crime, only 5% of the audience remembered individual statistics, but 63% remembered the stories.

“Stories engage the brain at all levels: Intuitive, emotional, rational, and somatic,” writes Duarte. When we hear stories our brains respond by making sense of information more completely.”

In my recent interview with Duarte, she talked about the role that empathy plays in persuasion.  She says, “Empathy is the DNA of our work at Duarte Inc and story is the method used to engage hearts and spur action.”  Empathy is not a word you typically associate with data, but it’s a word Duarte uses often.  Explaining data through the lens of empathy makes you more compelling.

As a long time student of Duarte’s methodology, I found DataStory to be a clear and compelling roadmap for anyone who wants to improve their influence. In my consulting practice I observe see well intended people try to win hearts and minds with data.  If the team or audience doesn’t buy in, the impulse is to provide more data.  The data matters, but it doesn’t call people to take action.

Duarte writes,  “Data is limited to recording the past by cataloging numerical artifacts of what has happened.  Seeking historical truth is vital to good decision-making, and those who work with data are, by nature, truth-seekers.  Yet as you grow into leadership positions, you’ll spend most of your time communicating about the future state others need to create with you.  Communicating data shapes our future truth ­ our future facts.  Communicating it well is central to shaping a future in which humanity and organizations flourish. “

When you transform your numbers into a narrative, people lean in.  If you want to show off research, present data.  If you want to showcase research, and get people to take action, use your data to tell a story.