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Presenting Data Effectively

XKCD Convincing Comic

In my job as a Policy and Communication Manager for Spark, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can translate the great research we do here into actionable products. When not presented effectively, data can be mostly noise – too much information to remember, interpret and use to make decisions. But, when data is presented effectively and at the right time, it can be a powerful tool for change. Here are some of the key things we use to guide our work here at Spark:

Be Clear on the Purpose: Is your primary goal to improve a strategy? To define a problem? To persuade? To educate? To call people to action? The same data can be presented in multiple different ways, which vary depending on why you are sharing the information. For example, if you’re looking to examine whether your strategy needs a refresh, you will need to focus on the data that is most actionable, whereas if you are looking to educate, there may be a need to provide additional context.

Know Your Audience: Does your audience have a depth of knowledge on the topic at hand or are they relatively new to the issue? Are you preparing a single document or presentation for an audience with varying levels of knowledge, interest, and/or education? Is their time limited? Do they need the facts quickly? Or will they have the time to digest the information more fully before taking action? Think about what is important to your audience and what they need to know the most. All of this will factor into determining how best to present information, e.g. an informal or formal presentation, a facilitated dialogue, or written, such as a brief, check-list, report, or white paper. These considerations will also influence the structure of the information and your tone.

Tell the Story: Stories make information more relatable, which makes your findings more actionable. Even if you don’t have a “traditional” story, it can be helpful to think of how you present your information using the elements of a story: characters (who is affected and who are the key players?), the setting (describe the context), plot (there should be a beginning, middle, and end), conflict (what is the central problem to be addressed and why is it important?), and resolution (what are some potential solutions, where do we go from here?). We tend to only remember one or two key things after a presentation or reading a document. If you present a series of findings, your reader will remember a couple of those findings, but will lose the rest. If you present a story, your reader will remember the overall picture of what the findings collectively mean.

Be Visual: Most of us are, by our nature, visual creatures. Often, showing is more effective than telling at conveying information, which means you’re increasing the likelihood your findings are used! Visuals can include charts, graphs, tables, maps, infographics, even pictures. Taking the time to think through which type of visual is the most appropriate for your audience, as well as what results are most worth highlighting, can help ensure your visuals have the most impact.


XKCD ConvincingActively Engage: Sometimes you don’t have direct access to your audience in-person or by phone. Instead, you’re sending documents, posting them online, etc. When you do have access to the audience, however, you can take the use of data to the next level. When we are presenting information, whether virtually or in the room, we don’t do half hour long PowerPoint presentations. We talk for 10 minutes, discuss and debrief for more than 10 minutes and repeat. We put the data up on the walls and let people walk around the room and talk with each other. We put visuals and stories on the tables and have small groups explore the meaning. We find ways to make sure that more time is spent digesting and thinking about how to act on the findings than spent absorbing the new information. When people integrate new information into how they are thinking about a problem or a solution, they are more likely to use it than when they simply learn the new information.

There are many great online resources out there for presenting data effectively, including our recently-released toolkit in our Tools for Social Innovators series, Data as a Tool for Change. We’d love to hear how you incorporate data into your work, and tips and tricks you have for presenting information effectively. Share in the comments or click here to contribute to the toolkit!

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Using Data for Decision-Making

When you get in the morning, how do you decide what the weather is likely to be? Often, we look up the weather forecast on our phones. But we also look out the window. After all, sometimes the weather report tells us there is a 10% chance of rain at the same time as the rain is falling down all around us. You’re making the decision off a mix of someone else’s data and analysis (thanks!) and our own experiential knowledge as we rush to close the windows before the rain gets in.

I have a family member who is a Ph.D. and loves fantasy baseball. I think if you asked him, he’d tell you he crunches the numbers, looks at the data, and assembles the best possible team. But fantasy baseball is a predictive game – you can’t really know what will happen – which means you rely on a mix of the numbers and your “gut” about what is likely to happen, for example, what you believe about each individual player, the game itself, or the teams playing. He’s making his decisions off a mix of someone else’s data that he analyzes along with his intuition about what is possible.

Fantasy Baseball Perception v Reality


I’m a thrifty person. When I go to the grocery store, I compare brands, taking time to look at the price per unit and assess sales, before putting something in my cart. But I do not always pick the lowest price because I also consider things like brand, flavor, and how I might want to cook with the item. Then I make my choice. That garlic hummus may be less expensive, but if I’m planning to eat a hummus wrap in close quarters, I may decide to go with the more expensive roasted red pepper version. I’m making my decisions off an informal return on investment analysis – I’m paying attention to the quantitative (the price), while considering the quality of the experience I’m going to have and its impact (in this case, on those around me!).

What’s the point of all these examples? We are all very good at using data for decision-making. We do it constantly. We also know how to combine data with intuition and experiential knowledge. Most of the change agents we work with have the core skills already in place to leverage data for decision-making. But, often, we lack two critical things in our jobs to make this happen:

  • The right data at the right time.
  • The right process for applying the data to the decision we’re making.

Our new toolkit on using Data as a Tool for Change is designed to take what we are all already good at and bring it into our work as agents for change. It gives concrete advice about how to find and collect the right data given the decision you are making and provides some specific processes to incorporate that data into your decision-making process.

Next month we are going quite a bit deeper, exploring how to engage in real-time strategic learning as an ongoing, comprehensive approach to integrating data into the DNA of your program, project, organization, or collaborative. Sometimes, however, you just need data for a specific decision. Do you have one of those decisions coming up soon?