Kate Norris helps people tell stories with their data. She is the co-host of the Presentation Boss Podcast and a trainer that delivers workshops on various topics related to PowerPoint, Visual Communication, Data Visualization, and Data Storytelling! In this episode, we talk about Data Storytelling, Data Visualization, and how to present your data better and more effectively by avoiding some common mistakes in DataViz.

In this episode, we talk about storytelling, presentation structure, audience analysis, finding your message, and Orsolya shares her process step by step – brainstorming and then structuring the presentation.

Her path to the world of presentations

Kate has a background in Data Analysis for about ten years in Finance and Workplace Health & Safety. She was giving many presentations about budgets and forecasts, which almost no one wanted to listen to, and she made it her goal to make people interested in the data she presented for work.

She shares with us that it took her years to slowly make those presentations interesting to people, who were not interested in data. After some time, she became ready for a change in her work life, and she looked up her skillset, which was data presentations.

Around that time, she met Thomas (with whom we also had the pleasure to talk to in this episode here), and the two saw a gap in the market for visual communications presentations and decided to fill it in.

A chart isn't always required for data visualization

That, according to Kate, would be the third step in her process. If data analysis and exploration is the first step, then step two is to figure out who your audience will be, what you’re attempting to say, and how you’ll express it to them. The next stage is to determine whether you require a chart.

It’s sometimes a good idea to have just one number to back up your statement. A chart should not be the destination; rather, it should be the starting point and a part of the process.

The three steps for great data visualization

Kate says that in terms of the data presentation side, there are four steps. The first one is exploring your data. That’s data analysis, and usually, it is not taught as a presentation skill because it is a whole different skill set.

Then comes data presentation with three steps: plan, design, deliver. You plan by working on your message and learning about your audience. The design is when you then do the data visualization and work on your PowerPoint. Finally, the delivery part is all about body language, eye contact, how you use the stage or screen, your voice, all that physical delivery stuff.

When people talk about presentation skills, they usually just mean the last step: delivery and body language. And this is inaccurate. But working on the planning and design stages is just as crucial.

When delivering a presentation, the confidence you have comes from knowing that you are communicating something that you are comfortable saying. That confidence mostly sits in that planning stage.

Planning for data storytelling

Make sure that you have a clear storyline. Kate mentions the DataStory model by Nancy Duarte, which she thinks is very effective. It has three steps – context, conflict, and conclusion. It ensures that you have that storyline before deciding if you need a chart to back up what you want to say.

Kate emphasizes that a problem she often sees is that people go straight to charts. And then they try to find a message that fits those charts – and that’s backward. You have to make sense of the data first and then decide on and create the visuals to back that up.

The effective charts to go for

Kate advises sticking to the simplistic charts for explanatory purposes – the ones that everybody understands, such as bar charts, column charts or line charts, and sometimes pie charts.

According to her, a lot of data analysts are so into charts that they assume that everybody understands all of them, and not everybody does, it doesn’t matter if they are an executive.

She says that she often hears “They’re an executive so they should understand,” but those complex visualizations are really for the analysts to analyze the data. They are the ones looking for the patterns within those more complex visuals. As a rule of thumb, Kate says that if a seventh-grader could understand the graph, then it is a great graph.

Tables and pie charts in presentations

For a ranking, any kind of list form, or for ordering the top five or ten of something – tables are good. Pie charts are trickier because you do not want a million pieces of pie. You want two or three so that it illustrates the data well, without being messy.

In general, simplicity is truly good for all charts. Imagine 30 categories of bar or column charts – with thirty colored lines. It would be too messy to look at or make sense of for someone seeing it for the first time.

“I think it’s our job, as people who present data, to help them understand and to make data as digestible and valuable, and usable as possible without making them feel like they don’t understand,” Kate adds.

As an example, Kate gives Hans Rosling, who is a physician, academic, and public speaker. He uses rather complex bubble charts, but the way he explains them and uses them makes them very digestible. Almost any chart can be used, if it is explained simply – piece by piece, and not just put out there.

In short, you have to explain the graphs and how you came to your conclusion. Do not just leave your audience with all the information that they are trying to comprehend. Direct them where to look, with a finger or a laser, and show them exactly where they have to be looking rather than expecting them to magically guess what you see.

Most common issues when visualizing data

Kate emphasizes the issue with people who begin by putting their graphs in PowerPoint and then notice their patterns and story. That, she believes, leads to an excessive number of revisions later. Spend time on the plot first, instead, and the number of changes will substantially reduce.

She also thinks that directly putting up the whole slide and its elements together at once is a mistake. You can make the elements appear one by one if you use animation. Only in this way will you be able to control where the audience’s gaze is, preventing them from becoming confused or drawing conclusions before you have had a chance to explain your message.

Data animation and more tips about DataViz

Kate recommends looking at animations; even the most basic Fade animation may help you a lot. Depending on your chart, you may animate in a variety of ways, but even simply the Fade, Wipe, or Morph effects are worth trying. Simple, functional, and neat. You only will have to think a little bit outside the box.

Another tip is to leave only the essentials in any of your charts. Get down to as little information as possible and stick only to the important points to be made.

The chart titles, on the other hand, should be action-oriented. Instead of just Q3 Financials, you could include a statement, Q3 had a 20% increase from Q3 last year. It provides more details about the action you want your audience to take and is one of the simplest chart improvements. If the title immediately reflects the message, it reduces the time it takes for your audience to read your graph and understand what is going on.

In review

In this episode, we greatly enjoyed learning from Kate Norris how to present better with data. She shared excellent suggestions for avoiding common DataViz mistakes.

So, before you use a chart to support what you want to communicate, make sure you have a clear plot, Kate advises. So, don’t just give your audience all of the information. Direct them where to look and what to see.

Let us know what your favorite takeaway was and what you plan to put into practice right away in the comments!


You can connect with Kate Norris on her personal LinkedIn. Do not forget to check out The Presentation Boss.

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