Metrics: What Do You Want Your Audience to Learn?

August 3, 2020

Over the last several weeks I have discussed the importance of metrics in terms of the sustainability, relevance and impact of an organization. I explored the importance of creating a culture where data is a driving force, building an employee base that is curious and uses data to ask more and better questions. Today I would like to focus on what I believe has been a major issue in leveraging data to make a case—a poor presentation of the metrics.

Data is just a set of numbers until we take the time to analyze it and decipher what it is actually telling us. And how we present the analyzed data matters almost as much as the data itself. How many of us have received decks of PowerPoint slides filled with grids with absolutely no analysis? Slides where we have to use a magnifying glass to be able read them? A mass of numbers in a chart is not information. It is just a set of numbers. And until we take the time to sit with them, contextualize them in terms of trends or projections, ask follow-up questions and turn the data into usable information, they are mostly meaningless.

A presentation of data needs to be organized to tell a specific story to the intended audience. It needs to be sequenced to ensure that it has, like every good story, a beginning, a middle and an end. It needs to have an arc—laying the foundation and highlighting what you want the audience to remember.

Presentations that start in the middle of the story, seem to be random in how the data is laid out, and fail to lead the audience through the process and learning are rarely successful. I have observed many people work for long hours on a presentation only to miss the mark because they did not think through the process of telling the story.

There are a few things that I look for when reviewing a metrics presentation:

  • LAY OUT THE PRESENTATION FLOW BEFORE YOU START TO BUILD THE PRESENTATION: Take time before building the presentation to lay out the key elements.
  • WHY: Remember, most of the time the audience does not have the background information that you have. When preparing the presentation ask yourself, what does the audience need to know first in order for this presentation to be meaningful? Consider the foundational slides that should be put in place, such as the rationale for the presentation, historical context, reason for digging deep into a certain subject, why the story they are about to tell matters to corporate or programmatic health.
  • WHAT: Next ask yourself, what are the salient points you want the audience to walk away having heard? Why do those points matter?
  • HOW: Next ask yourself what is the most effective way to present the information? Charts, graphs, short notes and narrative—a combination of the above? What kind of graph matters? A crowded graph that has way too much information on it loses even the most curious reader. If you are trying to show trends, then bar graphs are most likely the best choice. If you are trying to show % of the whole, then pie charts are a good choice.
  • WHEN: Is there a framework that you used to organize the data? If so, make that framework clear and sequence the slides accordingly--leading the audience through your thinking process, your framework.
  • THINK ABOUT THE SLIDE TITLE: Make sure that the title makes it clear what the data is about…“Year Over Year Trends in Company Growth” or “Second -Quarter Revenue and Year End Projections.” Think about what you want the reader to know as they start to review the data.
  • ADD UP THE NUMBERS: While this seems obvious, don’t make the reader add numbers. I cannot count the number of times I have reviewed data presentations only to have to add up numbers in columns. When this happens, I usually conclude that the individual presenting has not done the important analytics and is simply presenting numbers.
  • CONTEXTUALIZE THE DATA: Point in time data can certainly be important, but it is usually more impactful if it is contextualized by either trend data, comparison data or projections. For example, while it is important to know the number of women who work for a company, it is not helpful unless we know, for example, how that number compares to industry standards, or the company’s own history of employing women. And, in both cases, it’s important to know the proportion of women employed, compared to men.
  • HIGHLIGHT THE SALIENT POINTS: When reviewing a presentation, the reader should easily understand what is important. Notes, arrows, use of larger and different colored fonts all contribute to the telling of the story of what is important.

These are just a few of the important lessons I have learned along the way in presenting information. As always I welcome your thoughts!