Tag Archives: presentations

Data Display: Which Format Fits Best?

In almost every slide deck, there’s at least one assertion requiring the back up of solid data. Presenters are faced with the challenge of how to display this data in a way that supports the conclusion offered in an easily understood way.

When choosing a format for data display, ask yourself the question, “What does this slide have to prove?” (Then, make that answer your title.) Explicitly identifying the main argument will help you evaluate whether your chart choice is doing its job. Let’s take a look at some common data display formats* and how and when they are best used:


Tables get a bad rap when it comes to informational design, but that’s only because they are often used when another format would have better represented the data. True, tables fail to make trends and patterns immediately obvious, but they still have value.

Custom Slide Design | Table Slide | Presentation ServicesTables are great at comparing detailed information about several related items at once. Take this table slide: The table delivers a lot of information about the importance of the various application capabilities across a range of application categories in a matrix format. This data does not need to convey a trend or pattern through numbers; it needs to show similarities across categories. This is when a table work best.

Line Graphs

Slide2Often line graphs are used to compare too many elements at once; the result is a cacophony of lines squirming all over the slide. A good rule of thumb for choosing a chart type is to select the chart type that will prove your argument most simply. Line graphs are best for showing simple trends over time. 

Bar Graphs

Slide3Bar graphs are a great choice when the information is a little more complex but needs to be easily compared over time or between groups. In this example, each bar represents overall stock value, and the stacked sections give more detail about where that value is coming from. Although it does represent change over time, using a line graph for this data would look chaotic.

Pie Charts

Pie charts take a lot of heat in the design community, but I firmly believe they have their place. They must be used carefully, as it is true that it is harder for the brain to judge the differences in area than differences in length. Pie charts should be avoided when the specific numbers represented are vital, when there are only small value differences among data points or when there are more then 5 or so data points.

Slide4However, pie charts excel at showing general percentages in the break down of a larger whole. This pie chart gives a quick and easy to understand overview of the make up of a company’s patent portfolio and uses color to speed understanding of finer points: the blues group the U.S. patents against the foreign patents, and the paler colors group the pending patents against those already granted.

Selecting the right format for your data is crucial to proving your point and persuading your audience. Special attention should be paid to whether the data is displayed powerfully. Does it address the assertion in your title? Is it easy to understand quickly? Are your annotations and labels meaningful or extraneous? Good graph design is like any other good design. Everything that appears on the slide must have a reason for being there and it all must work together to create meaning.

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 *All slides in this post are taken from the body of work for one particular client. Sensitive information, including company identity, has been withheld. 

Slides Should Never Be Handouts

Presentation DesignA quick peek into my personal life: my husband spent a decade and a half as a management consultant. He violates the rule I’m about to discuss more egregiously than anyone.

Although I’ve given up on convincing him, I do believe there’s hope for the rest of humanity: Slides and handouts are two separate animals. Never use one for the other.

Consultants, like too many other presenters, often rely on their slides to serve two purposes: presentation tool and take-away info-pack. When a presenter makes this mistake, the resulting slides are so jam packed with information that not only do they exhaust the audience, they become their own worst enemy.

The human brain can only hold so much information before deciding to commit it to long term memory or discard it. The more info available at once, the more will get tossed into the discard pile.

During a presentation or learning session, new information is kept in the working memory of the learner. Ideas in the working memory are subject to manipulation by reasoning and comprehension; it is where the presenter can massage the information, add his take, affect its meaning and plead his case. Working memory is where information is the most subject to persuasion.

What a wonderful workspace! There is one problem though – space is limited. Only so many ideas can be actively held and manipulated in the working memory. This limitation is referred to as cognitive load and the theory states that the more a learner has to learn at one time, the lower his or her comprehension rate will be. In fact, the general consensus is that the working memory can only hold between 5 and 9 pieces of information at once.

Comprehension happens best when the audience is coming to understand a visual with the help of audible explanation, rather than when the brain is trying to process spoken words, written words, images and relational information all at once. Slides should be visual, low on text and simple. The best slides focus on one main concept and leave the detail to the presenter. This frees up the audience to listen to the narrative and associate it with the elements of the displayed image.

So now that the slides are simple and visual, has putting together handouts become separate project all together? Not at all; most presentation platforms have an answer programmed in. In PowerPoint it’s called the Notes section* and it builds comprehensive handouts without overcrowding the visual aids.

Reserve bullets and details for the Notes section and free up the slides for that which they were intended: visual communication.

Instructions on using PPT Notes:
*How To Use Notes To Create Handouts
*How To Set Up Presenter View To See Notes While Presenting