Visual Storytelling with Powerpoint: Tips for Communicating Complex Data Clearly

Effectively communicating data is one of the biggest challenges for a presenter. Whether it’s quarterly earnings, market share projections, or clinical trial results, data are complex. They often don’t lend themselves to “black and white” conclusions. And, let’s face it – they’re hard to translate into a riveting story. But data are important and making sure your audience understands your data the way YOU want them to is key. Otherwise, why bother with your presentation?

Studies show that visual aids can improve communication by adding a sensory aspect to the oral communication process.1 But the quality of the visuals – or slides – matters because poorly displayed data can cloud the message and confuse the audience.

These PowerPoint tips serve as a guide for putting together a clear, coherent, and effective presentation where the visuals support the story – not the other way around.

1. Pass the Glance Test

One of the most important things you can do is make sure your slides pass the “glance test.” Even the most riveting presenters know that people in the audience can get distracted. But when they turn back to the presentation – at a glance – they should be able to immediately understand what is being communicated.

Since the first information the audience reads is the headline or title, the title should state the conclusion. This is one of the best tools at your disposal for helping the audience see the data through your eyes. While a summary title may be longer than a descriptive title, a few extra words go a long way toward making a stronger point.

2. Keep the Formatting Clean

A data-heavy presentation is not the time to bring out your inner Picasso. Creating a simple, clear slide template with consistent formatting will help your audience focus on the content.

  • When choosing colors, the focus should be to contrast the background of the slides with the text. Use a dark background with light text, or a light background with dark text.
  • Since one in ten people has some form of color blindness, avoid using a red and green color combination to make it easier to discern information from your charts and graphs.
  • When selecting a font style, practicality rules. The easier something is to read, the easier it is to understand. Simple and clean typefaces (called “sans serif,” such as Arial and Calibri) are clearer for a projected presentation. These fonts are more legible at a distance, especially in dimly lit rooms, helping the eye run along the text more easily.
  • More important even than the font is the font size. Instead of making the audience strain their eyes during the presentation, follow these simple but effective guidelines:
Text Font Size (point)
Headers 36 – 44
Bullet Point Slides 28 – 36
Footnotes 12 – 14
Legends to Charts and Graphs As big as possible ≤ 24

3. Simplify Pictures and Graphics

There are some simple rules to determine if pictures and graphics on slides are clear enough. If the presenter mentions that the slide is hard to read or feels compelled to use a laser pointer, it’s a good bet that the picture, graph, chart, or table is too complicated.

  • The x- and y-axes should always be clearly labeled. Since this is the first time the audience has seen the data, they need to be orientated to the slide so they’re listening to the message instead of trying to figure out how the slide was drawn.
  • Lines and bars should be kept thick enough to be distinguishable from one another, with clear, easy-to-find legends.

4. Animate Graphics for Maximum Understanding

Animation should be used for one purpose and one purpose only – to make the information easier to process and understand. Simple animations are a great way to guide the audience through a complex data presentation. This allows them to process one piece of information at a time.

  • Don’t go “Hollywood!” This means no spinning, pulsing, or fizzling. The point of animation is not to be flashy. It’s to make your data comprehensible.
  • If the data overlap, presenters should show one set of data and then build the second line to give the audience a chance to absorb the information.
  • Draw the audience’s attention to parts of the graphic as you speak by highlighting with color or boxing relevant data.

Remember, if the audience is focused on trying to interpret the data, they’re likely to miss what you’re saying. The bottom line is that if the audience needs to work to figure out the slide, the presenter hasn’t worked hard enough to prepare it.

1. 3M/Wharton School Study (1981) University of Minnesota (1986)

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Jim DiBiasi

Jim has provided strategic and tactical communications counseling and coaching to top executives and leaders across multiple industries and Fortune 200 companies.

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