episode 19: Data Viz and Presentations

Today, Troy, Nolan and Sandy talk about the big topic of Data Visualization, or Data Viz, which has countless ways of displaying data on slides. Every presentation designer is using Data Viz techniques, without necessarily knowing it, or calling it that. Although all three approach Data Viz in different ways, they all have the same goal, to clearly communicate number information in presentations.



Let’s start by defining Data Visualization

  • Nolan: “The graphical display of abstract information for analysis and communication.” – Stephen Few or as I sometimes say: turning numbers into pictures.
  • Sandy: Data implies numbers, but I would expand data to include any written content that is better represented graphically.
  • Troy: Avoiding bullet point sentences and visually showing the same information or message, primarily in relation to numerical data.


What would we say are some key reasons Data Viz is important to presentation design?

  • Nolan: Analysis or communication (storytelling), and I think mostly in the world of presentation, it’s used for storytelling. Data and the meaning of that data becomes increasingly significant in business and all sectors these days at the same time that attention spans and amount of content is increasing. You need to be able to communicate the meaning of that data as quickly and clearly as possible. Enter data visualization.
  • Sandy: I think Data Viz forces us to follow one of my rules for creating powerful presentations – 1 concept per slide. Listing data in bullet points makes it easy to put a bunch of content on a slide. Data Viz forces that “chunking” and leads to telling a story vs. listing data.
  • Troy: The concepts of Data Viz are to present good, easily understood information. That should also be the definition of virtually every speaker support slide – well designed with balance, alignment, good use of colors, a focal point, and easily understood content.


Describe a few examples of Data Viz.

  • Nolan: A bar chart showing your quarterly sales or a line chart showing increasing cost of health insurance would be basic visualizations, but you can start to step outside of the typical with proportional shapes or geographic heat maps.
  • Sandy: Or instead of a bar or line chart, data could be visualized by focusing on a specific data point from that chart. For example, if you want to make a point that sales were $6M in Q4, and the trend is not important, then toss the bar chart and just say it. Show the 6M as a graphic.
  • Troy: Any way of not using a bullet, but a diagram or visual representation of that information/data.


Where does Data Viz show up most in Presentation Design?

  • Troy: I think the most obvious for many people is in charts, tables and diagram slides. But there is a big gap between adding a chart or table full of data, content, and working what content is shown to carry the needed message – effective Data Visualization.
  • Nolan: Mostly it’s charts, and I think an important thing to point out is that more often than not, on-screen presentation charts need to be the macro takeaway. What’s put up on screen is a simplified takeaway chart and the more detailed version lives in an appendix or handout. You have to be careful of putting too much data into an on-screen chart that will make hard to read and interpret.


Microsoft has a new charting engine, which is great as it has more capabilities and options. At this point, there are goods and not so goods.

  • Nolan: Microsoft is rewriting the charting engine for Office. The new generation of charts are “IVY” charts, which stands for “Immersive Visualizations.”
  • Sandy: I have to say that the Maps chart is pretty cool. The embedded spreadsheet is connected to Bing, but you can change the data on the default global map and end up with a map chart.
  • Troy: A good thing to know about is what happens if one of the new IVY charts is opened in an older version of PPT. Basically, the legacy versions of PowerPoint cannot support the IVY charts, so the chart is displayed as a non-editable .png image of the chart. No editing of the data is possible in the legacy PPT. But it is not permanently changed to an image. When opened in the newer version that supports IVY charts, it is again an editable chart.


What does Microsoft’s charting do well and what does it do poorly?

  • Sandy: Using Microsoft charts creates date that is always editable and can be designed. If you bring something in from another program, you can’t make a last minute edit and you can’t necessarily make sure it works with your styling.
  • Troy: Microsoft has made taking a bunch of data/numbers and turning it into a visualization – bar chart, line chart, pie chart, very easy for virtually anyone to do – that is the good stuff – they have successfully given basic Data Viz tools to the masses. The bad is the lack of making a story displayed in the visualization, which is still a manual process.
  • Nolan: Microsoft has been incredibly slow on adding flexibility to its charts and allowing new chart types to be made. The last decade has seen the invention of new types of charts and the increased use of less familiar ones. IVY charts are starting to take care of that with the intro of waterfalls and tree maps, but you still can’t easily do proportional shapes, Sankey charts, stream graphs and without hacks, you can’t easily create slope graphs, bullet charts, dot plots, panel charts and a host of other types that people are clamoring for or should be using and don’t even know about.


Let’s talk about the biggest “gotcha” when it comes to charts: embedding vs. linking.

  • Nolan: I recommend embedding as the preferred method unless someone really knows what they’re doing and have a reason for linking.
  • Troy: If a chart is created in PowerPoint, it is automatically embedded.


What Software is out there for Data Viz in presentation?

  • Troy: I am not a Data Viz 3rd party app person, so Excel, PowerPoint charting, and good design are my go-to’s.
  • Nolan: Tableau, R, lots of Excel add-ins.
  • Sandy: I use PowerPoint and Excel.


What are some good, creative, uses for Data Viz concepts in presentations?

  • Nolan: I love my proportional shapes because they’re so visual and a little unique. I tend to use those a lot and I find the easiest way to do them is to make them manually.
  • Troy: Replace a bar chart with a graphic that visually represents the percentages with clear call outs for each data point.
  • Sandy: I like using doughnut shapes that show the percentage as a part of the whole but also a large call out of the number placed in the center. This allows the viewer to quickly see the number and allow their brains to register how that number fits as a part of the whole.

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