How to Make Data Sexy

Let’s face it. Both technical and business presentations are full of important data—data that can make for very dry and boring presentations. But, if you are passionate about your data and convey the story behind it, your presentation will be hard to resist.

Take Dr. Talithia Williams, for example. Her professional life is all about building statistical models that study spatial and temporal structure of data. One would think that sitting through one of her presentations might be the perfect opportunity to return a few emails.  Think again.

In her popular TED presentation, “Own Your Body’s Data,” Dr. Williams leaves us with a few lessons that can make our data-driven presentations a bit sexier—yet seriously compelling even in business settings. Let’s consider three:

Give Data a Personality

Relevant stories that inject your passion for the data can be a nice surprise to audiences who anticipate a dry presentation. Dr. Williams does just that in three short sentences.

As a kid I always loved information that I could get from data and the stories that could be told with numbers. I remember, growing up, I’d be frustrated at how my own parents would lie to me using numbers. “Talithia, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times.” No Dad, you’ve only told me 17 times and twice it wasn’t my fault.

Tip: Keep the stories short and relevant to the content.

Make Sure Your Visuals Aid Your Story

Have you seen presenters bring up slides, then never reference them directly, orient you to them, or clarify why they’re relevant to the story? When presenters do that, they introduce a distraction, not a visual “aid.” But not Dr. Williams. One perfect example takes place at the 14:13 minute mark of her presentation:

I want you to consider the following chart, of systolic blood pressure measurements from October 2010 to July 2012. You’ll see that these measurements start in the prehypertension/hypertension zone…

Tip: Make your visual aids really count. If you are going to go through the trouble of creating them, use them properly. Orient the audience. Tell them where to look and why the data on the slide is important and relevant to the story.

Draw Attention to Your Core Message with a Question

When we coach presenters, we remind them of the importance of conveying a clear core message early in the presentation. But that core message also needs to be clear at the end as well. One way to draw attention to this very crucial piece of your presentation is by reengaging the audience with a rhetorical question. Notice how Dr. Williams does that at the 15:18 minute mark:

So what’s the take-home message that I want you to leave with today? By taking ownership of your data just like we’ve done, just by taking this daily measurements about yourself, you become the expert on your body.

Tip: Grab attention with a question. Then repeat your core message, making it relevant to the audience and connecting it to the story of the data.

So, what’s our take-away?  Data can be engaging, memorable, and even sexy. It’s up to you to make it sizzle!

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