How to Present Your Data like a Pro
With so many ways to spin and distort information these days, a scientific paper needs to do more than simply share findings — it needs to support those findings with credible data. No problem, you may say. A graph here, and a chart there, and you’re off to the races, right? Not so fast. Because while a good paper includes data, data alone doesn’t guarantee its good presentation. It’s not the mere presence of data that gives the paper power. It’s how that data is presented.
Showcasing data may seem simple in the age of PowerPoint, MS Words with apps, or more professional software like Fiji and BioRender. But ask yourself if you’ve ever been confused by a chart you saw at a conference or seen in a paper. If your answer is anything but firmly “NO”, then there was something wrong with the presentation of the data. How you present data can double — or decimate — its impact, so take note of these several ways to ensure that your data is doing its job.
1) Make sure your data can be seen
This may sound obvious but sometimes you’re too close to your presentation. What is readable for you may be far less so for others. Your audience won’t learn what it can’t see.
2) Focus most on the points your data illustrates
Data is a tool that strengthens your impact but has no value until you apply it purposefully. Don’t leave the burden of decoding your data to your audience. It’s your job to explain how the data supports your major points.
When you connect data to the essential points it supports, the transition should be explicit and sound like this:
“This data shows…”;
“This chart illustrates…”;
“These numbers prove…”
These transitions can be as important as the conclusions themselves, because you’re drawing the audience’s attention to those conclusions.
3) Share one – and only one – major point from each chart
The quickest way to confuse your audience is by sharing too many details at once. The only data points you should share are those that significantly support your point — and ideally, one point per chart. To keep your charts in check, ask yourself, “What’s the single most important learning I want my audience to extract from this data?” and “What data do I want to present?” That’s the one learning you should convey. Consider demonstrating each with a new visualization if you have several significant points to make.
4) Label chart components clearly
While you’ve been working with the same chart for weeks or months, your audience will be exposed to it for mere seconds. Give them the best chance of comprehending your data by using simple, clear, and complete language to identify X and Y axes, pie pieces, bars, and other diagrammatic elements. Try to avoid abbreviations that aren’t obvious, and don’t assume labeled components on one slide will be remembered on subsequent slides.
5) Visually highlight “Aha!” zones in your data
Every valuable chart or pie graph has an “Aha!” zone – a number or range of data that reveals something crucial to your point. Explain the relevance of the “Aha!” zone by sharing the story the data is telling.
When presented clearly and pointedly, data can elevate your point’s credibility and trustworthiness. Presenting data poorly not only squanders that opportunity but can damage your reputation as a presenter. It’s a powerful tool to draw out compelling truths — wield it wisely.