Algorithms? Mathematics? The merest hint of these ideas is enough to dampen the ardour of even the most determined digital suitor. But data can be sexy. Fascinating. And even – kind of fun.

We’ve been conditioned through school, university and corporate culture to see figures and ‘data’ as boring, the domain of endless, time-sucking presentations where you are trapped in a stuffy boardroom trying not to obviously yawn.

The problem often comes down to presentation: death by PowerPoint and torture by spreadsheet. But a little inspiration can go a long way.

Often the underlying information is actually useful, probably interesting – but just grossly underplayed – imagine the before shot of a makeover.

How do you make data interesting? More important how to could  inspire that ‘a-ha’ moment, for colleagues, clients and students who area allergic to graphs and anaphylactic to spreadsheets?

Here are our five recommendations to turn that ugly ducking into a swan and engage the imagination of otherwise hard bitten and occasionally cyncial colleagues;

Go on. Be a nerd.

If you’re going to play the alchemist and turn your slab of frumpy data into something a little bit more alluring, you first need to know what you’ve got. Assuming you’re a at least bit of a geek at heart and have some maths in your toolkit, take the time (behind closed doors) to get your nerd on and properly analyse the information you at your disposal. What are the trends? What happens when you cut the data different ways? Try banding data by date, by value or category.  Get all the numbers you could possibly need. Then take your nerd hat off and lock it away in the cupboard.

Find the story in your stats

You’ve got a ton of numbers but what ‘pops’ off the page?  To create an engaging story, the stats and facts you present need to have relevance to the audience’s concerns – either providing answers or showing new and surprising insights. In particular, look for anything in your number crunching that (a) confirms or disproves a contentious point or (b) raises an issue or consideration that hasn’t come up before. Then turn it into a story. Why is it relevant? What problem can this insight help to define or solve?

Visualisation brings the story alive

Presenting data visually is the best way to ensure you convey meaning in an accessible manner. A good infographic (See the snippet below) can make complicated facts clear and simple.

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(Infographic snippet: How to use visual tools to present complex data simply. Source

And there are some fantastic tools available to help you visually present data, many of them with free versions.  Google’s Fusion Tables IBM’s Many Eyes  and all have great functionality and are easy to use.

Some tricks to make visualisations that wow your audience are:

  • Use different fonts and sizes to highlight important numbers or facts
  • Don’t use graphs unless there is a very clear pattern you want to show
  • Pictograms and icons are great, as long as their meaning is clear
  • Arrows and highlights help time poor viewers focus in on the key point.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with unconventional ways to present information. Consider cartoons, videos, sketches and word clouds as alternate ways to illustrate your point.

Make your point clear

Often data driven presentations overwhelm their audience with volumes of information and then leave them to figure out the implications themselves. Don’t fall into this trap. Remember that you are presenting information to support an insight or recommendation, not for its own sake.  Pick 4 to 5 key points to make in your whole presentation, and focus emphasis on what these nuggets of data-driven insight really mean for the audience.

Choose your medium

 If you must use a conversation killer like PowerPoint, keep content minimal, visual, and don’t read off the screen. Learn to speak well, to use space, and pitch your presentation correctly. “Great presenters layer story and information like a cake, and understand that different types of talks require differing ingredients,” says Nancy Duarte, emphasising the importance of fitting style, length and tone of the presentation to both audience and topic. Ted Talks are a great source of inspiration.

Making data interesting means keeping the complexity and spreadsheets away from your audience, and turning the numbers into a story. It’s not easy. But it is rewarding.

About the Author

Anna Russell is a director at Polynomial, a Sydney based analytics and strategy consultancy. Polynomial works with businesses to drive value from technology investment and develop effective data driven strategies for marketing and customer
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