For presentations, focus on narrative

You’ve collected the data, you’ve run the analysis, now you have to decide how to present. You’ve considered it from every angle, and you’re preparing a slide deck to match–detailed, lengthy and technical. Is this the right approach? Probably not.

Rule of thumb: include no more than one figure per topic

When you’re the technical expert, people aren’t always trying to prove you wrong. They expect you to do the work work correctly, until you give them reason not to. You don’t have to take them through the entire process of analyzing the data. One figure is enough to make the point and move on. More than that becomes boring and forgettable.

This was an adjustment for me. Academic seminar talks are all technical, and audience questions take the presenter through the weeds.

There are exceptions to this rule, but for most audiences, one figure is the limit of attention. Choosing one figure to make the point will help to clarify your message. That said, be ready to answer questions from many angles.

If they don’t want data, what do they want? Narrative

Instead of spending most time thinking about and preparing figures, spend your time thinking about narrative and story telling. What are the keys?

A crucial element of narrative is an upward or progressive arc. We like companies that grow, societies that evolve, people that improve themselves and narratives that move from bad to better:

“We had some trouble early in Q2, but learned our lesson and fixed the problem.”

“We sustained initial losses but our heavy investments paid off in the long run.”

Another part of memorable narratives is the goldilocks principle–not too much, not too little:

“We were over-invested in customer service. We were able to reduce costs without affecting our feedback scores.”

“This model achieves the right balance of simplicity and complexity and will maximize profit”

Another type of narrative that appeals to me is the contrarian narrative: the experts say X, but here’s why they’re wrong. This one’s more of a personal taste and should be used carefully.

Narratives operate at different levels and in different contexts

Business executives craft a narrative about their business that must satisfy investors, motivate employees, generate positive PR, and be stable over time.

In a similar way, data scientists must craft narratives about data that are consistent with the facts, satisfying to leadership, palatable to stakeholders and memorable.

So next time you’re presenting your data, think about narrative, and see how much impact you can have.


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