Presentation Tip: Find the Human Story Behind the Numbers

Posted By on May 20, 2014

Most audiences suffer math anxiety not because they’re bad at numbers—but because they’ve sat through too many presentations that have gone off the rails with incomprehensible financials or statistics. Presentation tip 101: never show a spreadsheet with itty-bitty numbers without a human translation.

If You Are Presenting Numbers, You Have to Connect The Dots

The problem with a sea of numbers on a spreadsheet is that an audience doesn’t know where to look. As the presenter, your task is to chart a path through the thicket of data so people can easily follow your logic.

Presentation Tip #1: Boil Down Any Collection Of Numbers to Human Behavior

Companies typically collect data in order to provide insight into what its customers, staff, suppliers or sales channel are up to: what people are buying; what motivates them to choose brand X over Brand Y; which price point makes them more likely to purchase, and a thousand other questions. In collecting and analyzing any type of data, what you’re really trying to do is reach a better understanding of who, when, why and how people act as they do.

In my classes on How to Rock a Presentation, I often show this old and slightly wonky clip from Lizzie O’Leary, a news correspondent from Bloomberg TV. Ignore the 2006 news date (and its lame graphics) because Lizzie O’Leary nails how to present a numbers story by putting a human face on it.

Presentation Tip #2: Put the People the Data Represents Front and Center

In the video clip above, Lizzie O’Leary effectively uses her interview with Corliss Gaines, a woman from New Orleans, to represent the behavior of a lot of people who got stuck with sub-prime mortgages in 2006. But if you don’t know or can’t find a specific person to represent the problem, there are other ways to “humanize” your graphics.

Presentation Tip #3: Learn from Smoke: The Convenient Truth

SMOKE – The Convenient Truth [1st place Worlds Best Presentation Contest] by Empowered Presentations

Take a look at the stellar art direction on this slide deck by Empowered Presentations which depicts the growing problem of world-wide smoking. Rather than hiding smokers and their health issues behind black-and-white numbers, the art director chose to show real people who suffer from cigarette smoke.

Here, the image of the smoking beauty––a gorgeous Asian woman ––is juxtaposed against a number of smokers so vast, it staggers the imagination. The result is like Beauty and the Beast: in this image, the Beast is winning the battle by turning the beauties of Asia into wrinkled and cancerous hags.
asian beauty smoking

Put the Behavior You’re Talking About on Display

Another graphic trick involves the use of two lit cigarettes to graphically represent the number of cigarettes lit every few seconds across Asia. The slender cigarettes with their long burning ashes replace the minute hands of a clock, subtly reinforcing the point that the smoking problem exists in time as well as by volume of smokers and cigarettes.

presentation tip: show human behavior by using cigarettes as clock hands burning time

Presentation Tip #4: Highlight the Problem With a Metaphoric Color or Image

A lot of really smart graphic choices also make this deck by Empowered Presentations truly “killer.” It shows a map of China, where the giant population makes the problem so scary, glowing red like a burning ember being sucked into the lungs. One slide focuses on where the problem behavior is happening (China) and the bright red color reinforces the idea that one of the largest countries in the world is literally burning itself up.

The same graphic technique is used with the photo of a man’s hand holding a lit cigarette and sticking up out of a grave of cigarettes. Pretty graphic, right?
presentation tip: show human behavior with arm sticking out of cigarette grave

Be a Mensch and Ask Lizzy O’Leary @Lizzieohreally to Update Her Video

Bruce Gabrielle of Speaking PowerPoint (and all around great presentation wizard) found the Lizzy O’Leary video on YouTube during her days at Bloomberg TV and wrote about it on his blog. But it sure would be nice if Lizzy would update her video shot back in ’06 now that she’s at CNN. Just send her a tweet @Lizzieohreally and ask her (nicely) for a 2014 version of how to tell a human story with numbers. I promise I’ll share it.