This post was originally published on PresentationXpert blog.
For people presenting scientific or technical information, there are often specific tables and numbers they wish to show: Descriptive data, summary statistics and regression results, for example.
Sometimes those details need to be presented, but far too often they are packed in tables with 20 columns and 40 rows as if anyone in the audience can see them.
Presenting the data-heavy table to a room of your colleagues is inherently different than asking someone to crack open your paper and read it on their own. Your reader can dig in and examine the 20-column, 40-row table you’ve included in your written report, but it’s not going to show up very well on a projector in front of 50 people.
The purpose of that dense table is to allow your reader to examine the detailed, actual values of your analysis. When you show it to your audience, however, it’s no longer able to examine it in the same way because there are too many small numbers and they are busy trying to listen to what you have to say.
Tables can be used, of course, but always be mindful that your audience may not be able to see the details projected on the screen.
Consider this fictional table of regression results. Do you expect your audience to actually read it when you put it on the screen? If so, when they do so, do you expect them to listen to what you have to say while they are squinting to read all the variable names, coefficients, standard errors, footnotes, and interpret the statistical significance?
Even if you give them a silent moment or two to absorb the information (and how much time is enough?), how do you know they are absorbing the information or conclusion you want them to?
As an easy, first step to creating more effective tables for presentations—but still one that provides too much information for your audience to easily understand—is to apply what I call a Layering approach. In the Layering approach, you present elements one at a time, building to the final slide. This approach can be used with bullet points, with graphs, with equations, with any detailed set of information you wish to present.
In this case, we can split this table into four, or maybe even five, separate slides. Instead of the single slide above, therefore, we end up with the following set of four.
Another approach to presenting detailed information is to rethink your table altogether. Carefully consider which numbers you actually want to show to your audience and that will help you convince your audience (without biasing their understanding or perception of your work) of the value and importance of your results.
Once you have identified the most important numbers—and you’ve been working with your data for some time already, so you have presumably already identified them—then just show those values.
For example, if you are sharing a set of results that include some estimates that are not central to your story and perhaps not particularly important (for example, monthly dummy variables in a regression model), leave them out of your presentation. Your audience can ask you for details if they like or they can find the details in your written paper should you have one.
One alternative to the huge table shown above, therefore, is to show just those important variables and that best help convey your content, story, and conclusion. Even here, however, there is a lot of information on the slide—parentheses, brackets, asterisks—all of which can make it difficult for your audience to see the information while they listen to you discuss the implications of your findings.
Instead, perhaps try using color to highlight statistical significance, or a particularly interesting result. You can simply say, “the darkest cells here are those that are statistically significant at the 1% level” instead of asking your audience to read the standard errors and navigate their way through everything on the slide.
Another alternative is to rethink the entire table itself and use a graph instead. Creating content that better taps into the natural tendency to recognize and remember information presented visually will help your audience better focus on your content and ultimately better remember your conclusions.
Here are three possible ways to use a graph instead of a table.
Show those important estimates for each variable in the four models
Add asterisks to that basic slide to denote statistical significance
Or use errors bars to accomplish a similar task as the asterisks.
Depending on how much detail you want to cover, you could then apply the Layering technique to the slide and show, say, the four estimates for the first model, then the estimates for the second model, and so on.
A final technique to present detailed information such as that shown in the table is to provide a handout. Be careful, however, because the moment you provide your audience with a piece of paper is the moment they start reading it and stop listening to you.
If you’re in a smaller room, you may be able to circulate the handout when you reach the point in your presentation when it’s needed. Or, you can pass it out at the beginning and set the audience’s expectations by telling them the handout they have in front of them won’t be needed for another 20 minutes or so and that you’ll let them know when to bring it out.
There are many times when presenting detailed information, statistical results, or data will be an important part of your presentation. But keep in mind that if your audience struggles to see your material, they are going to stop listening to you and not buy into your content.Focus your audience’s attention on the specific content you want to show them and visualize that content so they are more likely to recognize it, remember it, and act upon it.