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The top three mistakes data-driven teams make when creating decks.

At Deliverable Coaching, we work with data-centric teams and individuals to help them become better on all levels at making and delivering presentations. This includes what they say, how they say it, and what they show.

Our core curriculum, The ACTION Program™, is customized for each group we work with. Part of our on-boarding process is that we get to take a look at the past deliverables of who we’re coaching.

This means we get a high-level look at a lot of the common strengths and weaknesses of many people. As such, we see a lot of the same mistakes being made on a regular basis.

Here’s our assessment of them and how you can avoid them in the future.

Any data that is unrelated to your story should go in the appendix or an "additional data" section.

Mistake 1: Neglecting to tell a story with the data.

Issue - Throwing in every graph possible into a really long deck.

Everyone has seen this one and likely been guilty of it themselves in the past! I know I was a long time ago. Data in and of itself has no meaning. Humans give context to data by comparing different data to each other - past, competitive, alternate scenarios, projected, etc. When a bunch of charts are just thrown into a deck, it means a key element is left out: the question “so what?” isn’t answered. In other words, what does this data mean we should DO?

Solution - Bucket data into three to five themes, appendix unnecessary graphs, and always provide recommendations.

Humans are excellent at many cognitive tasks, but one thing we’re really good at is recognizing patterns. This skill is also central to data analysis. Gather enough data from enough sources, and patterns emerge. These patterns, or conceptual observations about the relationship between data sets, are often times referred to as insights. You can also think of them as “themes”.

If three different data sets are saying kind of the same thing, that’s a theme. It’s pattern that gives a future indication for what we should do. Once a theme is found, it’s the presenters job to prepare a presentation that tells the story of those themes in a clear, concise, and easy-to-understand way. Any data that is unrelated to your story should go in the appendix or an "additional data" section.

Have 120 slides of graphs? Ask “which 10 of these slides are absolutely crucial to share?” - then, in the deck, answer the question “why is this important and what should we do about it?” Everything else goes to appendix-land. Otherwise, if it’s just a bunch of meaningless graphs without context.

Mistake 2: Not knowing data-visualization fundamentals.

Issue - An audience that draws the inaccurate conclusions based on confusing graphs.

I’ve read a few of Edward Tufte’s (the “father of data visualization”) books, and in one of his books he recounted the harrowing story of how the Space Shuttle Challenger incident occurred in 1986. NASA scientists were charged with analyzing and then visualizing past launch data to determine whether or not the Challenger should be launched on a day that was colder than previously anticipated. The visual they used to present their data was hard to understand, and, as a result, NASA made the wrong call and all seven crew members lost their lives. Proper data visualization can be, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Solution - Learn data visualization best practices: declutter your graphs and ensure graphs tell an obvious story on their own.

Fortunately, most jobs aren’t a matter of life or death. Either way, the lesson from the Challenger incident teaches us that even some of the smartest minds can draw incorrect conclusions from data if it isn’t visualized properly.

The best thing to do is to read up on the subject. There are tons of articles and books out there (Google “data visualization best practices”) - but I recommend starting with Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display Of Quantitative Information. The design aesthetics are older, but the principles are more relevant than ever - and are rarely applied.

If you’d like a TL;DR (too long, didn’t read), there are really two big principles to properly visualize data:

1) Remove unnecessary and distracting visual clutter from your graphs, known as "chart junk" (outlines, boxes, gradients, redundant 0’s, labels, legends, etc). This allows the eye to focus only on what’s important: the data and what it says.

2) Each graph should tell a story on its own. This means using the right graph or chart for the job, and organizing and styling graph elements in a way that leads the viewer to accurately discern what the graph is really saying.

Mistake 3: Failing to understand and set expectations.

Issue - "Speed bumps" such as going over on time, a restless audience, getting hung up on one slide, no time for discussion, etc...

How many times have you walked into a room to present something and it didn’t exactly go as planned? For many, it’s every single time. The presentation goes way over time or is cut totally short. A presentation takes too long to make its point and falls on deaf ears. Audience members have tons of questions about a single slide and it throws the rest of the presentation off. The number of these “speed bumps" are almost endless. But, they are actually all tied together.

Solution - Acknowledge the constraints to operate within and criteria to achieve before writing a single slide.

All of these common presentation issues and speed bumps are related to a common theme: failing to understand what the presentation is meant to do before anything is done. This rule is so important that it’s the first thing taught my curriculum, The ACTION Program™.

Answering these questions before a presentation is written will help avoid nearly all of these issues:

1) What is and isn’t the deck supposed to do? If it’s supposed to outline a clear recommendation on what to do next year, then it should focus most of its time on what that looks like and get to the point as quickly as possible.

2) What is the context of the meeting? This is two-fold: consider other things that are happening in the organization or project that may affect the presentation’s content, and consider the environment and style of the meeting itself. If it’s meant to be a discussion, try printing slides out, taping them to a wall, and having a work session. If it’s more formal, a polished deck with a clear story, and killer visuals that finishes on time is a must. Which brings us to...

3) How long is the meeting and how much of that do you want to present and have Q&A for? Rarely is the length of the presentation thought about in advance of any meeting. Shifting mindsets to focus on the structure and timing of a meeting in advance helps avoid a presentation going over and ensure all content, including discussions, are covered in the allotted time. My general rule is to allocate two minutes of talking time per slide.

Wrapping up

So there you have it - three big mistakes with three straightforward ways to fix them. I’d love to hear any other common mistakes and protips you may have - there is no wrong way to make a deck, but some ways are just more right than others!

Check out more decks on Deliverable Coaching's Slideshare.

Think your organization or team could use some help with their decks? Let’s grab some time to chat and see if we’re a fit! http://delco.me/meeting

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