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How to (and How Not to) Get Your Audience to Care About Your Data

Do I want to sign up for a flex spending account? No. I really don’t have any desire to fill out any more forms than I need to.

Last week was our annual “Open Enrollment” meeting in order to decide whether we’d like to make any changes to our current benefits – health insurance, life insurance, etc. Several representatives from various companies came to inform us about their products and services. Among the sales reps was someone from our Flexible Spending Account (FSA) program.

He didn’t use slides, but if he did, his pitch would have looked something like this:

How Not to Present Data

Do I want to save money on taxes? Probably. After all, I can probably spend my money better than my government, right? So yeah, if it’s significant enough, how can I stick it to The Man?

On second thought, how much money will I really save? Meh. Especially if it involves HR paperwork, maybe I’m really not that interested.

I wonder if his presentation would have grabbed more people if he had offered this sort of information: How to Share Data

Sometimes I get on my soapbox about slide design, but in this instance, I don’t think slide design is the biggest issue. The biggest problem with the way he made his pitch was that I didn’t find his argument very compelling. Sure, slide design can always be helpful, but more important is to present your information in a way that speaks to the audience.

Saving money on taxes doesn’t excite me because, honestly, I have no idea how much I pay in taxes each year. My employer calculates how much I pay in taxes (so I don’t really miss that money since I never actually see it), plus I get a refund in April. A general statement about saving on taxes isn’t as powerful as a specific statement that tells me exactly how much I could save (depending on my tax bracket).

Perhaps an even more compelling argument could have been made if he had added a little extra. Something like this:

How to present data

I suppose $892.50 is a nice chunk of change… but now I can see that by signing up for whatever this guy is trying to sell, I can actually afford that Hawaiian get-away next year!

Data needs to mean something.

Meetings these days are full of data. If you’re presenting the data, chances are the meaning of that data is obvious to you. Keep in mind, however, that the data’s meaning isn’t always obvious to your audience. The next time you have to make a pitch or simply present data, try to make sure it means something. Give it some scale or help your audience grasp its very importance.

Looking for some inspiration on data visualization? Here are a few examples:

Hans Rosling offers 200 years of world history (in relation to life expectancy and income) in 4 minutes:


David McCandless offers this TED Talk about the story behind data:

[ted id=937]


Tableau, a Seattle-based company that’s all about data, offers some interesting visual examples here.

What tricks have you found to be helpful when sharing data with your audience?


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