How to Make an Audience Connect with Cold, Hard Data

Data is an important part of any business, forming the basis of effective decision-making. To make this a reality though, the information needs to not just get to the decision-makers, but they need to understand what it means. So how do you avoid bombarding your audience with facts and figures, leaving them stunned and without an understanding of what it all means? The answer: Emotional direction.

Many moons ago, I worked as a financial data analyst. Each month, I would present budget and forecast information at departmental meetings. Yes… it was exactly as exciting as it sounds. When I first started out, I had no presentation training and no idea what I was doing. I would diligently work through each line item, telling what I considered to be the crucial information. And each month I would receive the same blank stares, until we got the overview of what was going on. Then I’d ask for questions and invariably be bombarded with requests to go back over a bunch of the same line items I’d just run through. I would be frustrated because – come on guys, I’ve already gone over this!

What was I doing wrong? Why weren’t these people following along with my beautiful bar graphs and well-spaced tables? And it wasn’t just me. I would see this happening when others presented their information at monthly meetings that I attended. A graph would be displayed then the presenter would talk in what seemed like another language, until they finally told us what the graph meant at the end. Then some of that gobbledy-gook started to make sense, just before they moved on to the next graph. By the time the following month rolled around, I would forget what all the graphs represented, and we would go through the exact same process, with the audience not fully understanding what was going on.

Eventually, I realised the truth. They didn’t care about the detail until they knew the overall status of the budget. They needed context to be able to properly process the information I was giving them. Did they need to worry that X was lower than forecast? How much impact did having a high Y really have? What I needed to provide them was emotional direction.

I saw a huge change in my audience once I started to provide this direction at the start of my presentations. I was saving time because there were less questions at the end. People were more engaged with the data and their faces showed, if not excitement, at least something more than a blank stare of incomprehension. They could relate the information to the emotional direction that I’d given them, letting them make the connections between the cold, hard data and how it affected them.

If you’re delivering numbers, start at the top, not the bottom. Provide context and an overview and THEN delve into facts and figures. It’s easy to forget that because you can see the big picture, the numbers make a lot of sense to you. But you need to provide that big picture for your audience and give them the emotional direction, first.

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