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Making Data Persuasive: How Business Presentations Have Changed

In recent years, business presentations have changed so dramatically that they are almost unrecognizable from what was done a decade ago. Just as the introduction of PowerPoint / Keynote required business presenters to learn a new modality, a similarly different skill set is required to present effectively now.

Then now

The most important business presentation is the one that focuses on obtaining the agreement or acceptance of the audience: the approval of a purchase or the go-ahead of a project. Previously, this presentation was given to people in the room who were hearing the proposal for the first time with a relatively short question and answer session (usually at the end).

Now, most of these types of presentations involve both people in the room and others attending remotely, have seen the proposal well in advance, and look forward to asking questions at any point during your presentation. Worse still, some people who evaluate your proposal may never see your presentation and make their decision based solely on what they read.

Every presentation prepared for an audience that the speaker perceives to be in a superior position will have a lot of data. The temptation is irresistible. You have so much data available and you don’t want to risk appearing ill-prepared or lacking solid “proof.”

Use data to persuade

Data should never be the most persuasive component of your presentation. This will come from your examples, pictures, stories, and anecdotes. However, you have a better chance of success if the data in your presentation is as compelling as possible. Based on our knowledge of how the brain processes information, here are some simple guidelines.

  • Make your chart serve your purpose. Most people select a chart that can encapsulate most of the information, which is wrong in principle. You should not select a chart to display data; you must select the graph that best illustrates your point. Ask yourself, “What is the point I am trying to make by displaying this data?” and select your chart accordingly.

  • Make the numbers real with powerful comparisons. For example, “The amount it costs to feed a child in a village for three days is what you pay someone to deliver the food to their doorstep.”

  • Put the statistics ‘in the room’. For example, “48 percent of the population is affected by this change. So, in this room (of 24 people) there will be eleven of you.”

  • Use the anchor to your advantage. This principle proves that the first number people hear becomes a reference point for later numbers. So for example, if you were trying to emphasize increasing efficiency, you wouldn’t say, “Our efficiency has increased by 22%, which is great given last year it was 10%.” Instead, he would present it this way: “We have an excellent performance on our efficiency. Last year we increased efficiency by 10% and this year we increased it to 22%.”

  • Deliver data more powerfully by emphasizing the numbers and placing them at the end of your sentence. So instead of “This will produce a 25% increase in profitability.” I would say “This will produce a 25% increase in profitability.”

Prepare the answers

The different mode of delivery means that much more of your presentation should focus on your answers to your questions. If they have seen your proposal beforehand, try looking at it through their eyes. What would worry them? What are the possible incorrect assumptions they could make?

Data-heavy presentations won’t go away. Information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. Your role is to turn this transfer of information into knowledge for your audience, so that they can have the wisdom to do what you ask.

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