On average, what percent of the content of your presentations is data? Data include tables, charts, top/bottom lists, scorecards, or metrics. If you are like many of my clients I'd bet your answer is around 80-90%. If that's the case, then you've got 70-80% more than you need. Being data-driven does not mean that you have to fill your presentations with data. In fact, the more data that you provide, the less effective your presentation will be.
There are three simple reasons to stop putting so much data into your presentations:
People can't handle a lot of data
Research in both neuroscience and psychology has overwhelmingly proven that the conscious mind is pretty limited in the amount of data it can process at one time. When confronted with too much data, the unconscious mind takes over. For rote situations, this works pretty well. However, for situations requiring focus and attention, this could be a disaster. Our unconscious minds have developed tricks to manipulate large amounts of information. Many of those tricks involve ignoring, combining, or generalizing information based upon your expectations or past experiences. The result is that often the more data you look at (at one time) the less accurate the picture becomes.
People don't really use data to make decisions
This might seem paradoxical. The best leaders will tell you that they are data driven, objective, and let the facts guide them. But, again, research has proven that they aren't. Actual data play a very small role in a person's decision making. In one famous study at the University of Michigan, people who had strongly held beliefs based on incorrect data actually strengthened those beliefs once they received the contradicting, correct data. How often have you provided a sound data-driven argument only to be countered with, "I still don't think that's true"? Often, the only time people ask for the data is when they disagree with your conclusion. When was the last time they changed their mind once you showed them the facts? People make decisions based on a huge variety of things (emotions, biases, misconceptions). Despite what we may believe (or even tell others) data are often the least influential part of the process.
People don't actually want data
Again, this might seem contradictory. We've been told that we should be data-driven and people regularly ask to see data. However, in most cases, they really don't care about the number. Instead they need the number to figure something out. A person asking for sales figures may be trying to figure out which regions need attention. Or, perhaps he or she wants to know if the recent marketing campaign is working. There are a host of questions that a person might have for which sales figures help provide an answer. However, the figures themselves aren't the answer. They are merely an input. People want the story of their business and the decisions, recommendations, and actions necessary to make that story work out positively. Don't make them work for it. That's what you should be providing.
I'm not suggesting that you stop using data. Every statement, decision, or recommendation that you make needs to be supported by clear data-driven evidence. However, using data to make a decision is different from displaying all of that data while making your argument.
Resist the urge to simply dump a lot of data on your audience. Sure, it may be easier, faster, and less risky to do so. However, it doesn't really move the conversation forward. In fact, in many cases it will slow down the discussion as people will get stuck on details and numbers which aren't going to impact the final decision or answer anyway. Start trying to present a simple, clear "story" of what is happening in the business and what needs to be done to help the business succeed. Put all of the charts, graphs, and tables in the appendix. You can draw upon them as needed to answer questions or defend your statements.
Our Rethinking Data workshop can help you become a more effective consumer of data. We've already helped over 3,500 leaders in over 30 countries across seven different industries. Large Fortune 500 companies as well as small local businesses have benefited from our new approach to using data. Let us help you. Check out the workshop at www.kolarassociates.com/rethinkingdata.
Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, Speaker, and Author. He can be reached at email@example.com.