presenting a lot of data

How to Present Complexity With Clarity

Cartoon: Yeah, but it's a data transfer system I can understand. I recently came across this cartoon and started laughing out loud. It really resonated with me. I relate to that guy who's defaulting to something he knows and something he can understand. It's that old adage: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Yet, so many presentations are like coming face- to-face with big data. And they make you want to jump out the window. This is especially true with financial, technology, and scientific presentations. I know how it feels when I buy a new piece of technology. I can't bear to look at the user manual. I'll either watch a how-to video or call upon my technical assistant because she speaks 'Geek' and English.

Apparently, there's too much geek being spoken in the workplace.

Wouldn't it be great if you could transfer your data into the minds of your listeners as easily as pushing a button? Recently, the actor Alan Alda was on the morning news promoting a new career. He's coaching scientists how to present to Congress. When scientists present to congressional committees, their audience doesn't understand what they're recommending. Their gobbledygook is as confusing to Congress as legislation is to the rest of us. The impact is they don't get the funding they need.

When I coach executives and leaders who are presenting at high-stakes venues or before the executive committee, the complaint is that they aren't succinct. Here are 5 tips for communicating simply and clearly.

  1. Avoid using acronyms, buzz words, and jargon. Never assume your audience knows the meaning of company or industry jargon. Use the complete word or description initially. Later in the speech, you can use the acronym - after you've defined it.
  2. Use analogies and metaphors from every day life. When speaking about something complex or technical, an analogy or metaphor will boil it down to its simplest essence. Recently a client was presenting about clinical trials. The slide was busy and there were a lot of complex details. I recommended that she refer to the clinical trial timeline as a dashboard. The dashboard metaphor simplified the timeline so the audience could understand the details without getting lost in the weeds.
  3. Less is more: use shorter words and fewer of them. There is a misconception about using a large vocabulary when presenting. While it can make you sound smart, it can also confuse your audience. Simplicity equals clarity. Most marketing copy is aimed at an 8th grade reading level. While this makes the most erudite public speakers bristle, it ensures that the message is heard. The question is this: Do you want to be clever or clear?
  4. Tell stories. A story has a natural sequence. When you have a lot of data and it's wrapped in a story, it has the same effect as using an analogy or metaphor. People can follow it. They get involved.
  5. Start with the big picture. The biggest mistake technical presenters make, is they get lost in the detail. Start with the helicopter view. Listeners need a roadmap. So give them context. Give them the big idea, and then drill down for details. If you ordered a turkey sandwich and it came with the meat on top of the roll, you would send it back. Well that's the experience your listeners have when you start with detail. Save the meat for the middle of your presentation. Use a speech template and plug in your data to keep your presentation organized and simple.

Use these tips to present big data with clarity, and your presentation will become a data transfer system that your listeners understand.

Craft and Deliver Your Presentation With Clarity, Confidence and Impact.