Lea Pica, LeaPica.com – 3 Keys to Avoiding Presentation Zombification and Creating an Impact with Your Insights

January 16, 2020

With her special blend of neuroscience-based visualization principles, practical hands-on design techniques, and entertaining “tough love,” Lea will equip you with a fresh new toolbox that will get you and your data stories remembered and acted upon.

Learn from Lea Pica, Data Storytelling Advocate, about how to:

  • Recognize and break your most common unproductive presentation patterns
  • Understand what your audience is asking for but doesn’t know how to say it
  • Leverage imagery to evoke emotion and inspire action
  • Present data in a clear and compelling way designed to inspire the brain

Fill out the short form to view the webinar on-demand.

Hello and welcome to my presentation! Thank you so much for joining me at the ObservePoint Virtual Analytics Summit. I'm so thrilled that you decided to join me today and today I'm going to be talking to you about the three pillars of presentation: enlightenment, the keys to creating impact with your insights and avoiding the presentation zombification pandemic. 

So I want to kick this off with a big number. Heard you guys are into numbers, so I feel like you will think this is relevant. What I want to share with you is that last year Forrester predicted that 25% of new hires and promotions would require data storytelling skills that includes data design and the soft skills of communication. 

I was floored when I heard this number because I'm all too familiar with the scenario that goes a little bit like this: One of your executives or clients calls you up on the phone and she's like, "Hey, can you come and present some campaign results at next week's leadership meeting? It's no biggie. Just everyone that matters to your career is going to be there. Okay thanks, bye!" And you're like, "Oh my God!" Because obviously you want to knock this one out of the park. So here you are happily crunching numbers all day, working round the clock to find those beautiful insights and it's now presentation day and you are just showering your executives with your nuggets of wisdom and you take a quick look around the room and you suddenly notice that you don't exactly have their undivided attention. Look familiar? Glazed eyeballs, little drool and you start to worry that all your hard work has flown into what I call the dreaded data black hole. What you may not realize is that you might have just become the next victim of a global pandemic I call "presentation zombification", that zombifying that we do when we go in and present insights that just don't seem to make an impact. 

Now, if this situation sounds at all familiar to you, you're not alone because this is actually my story and it's not just my story. This pandemic is expensive. A study done by doodle.com last year estimated that nearly half a trillion dollars is wasted annually during ineffective business meetings in the US and the UK. That's insanity and that's kind of the theme for today's presentation because one of the most important quotes that I came across in the last few years might sound very familiar to you. I realized along the way that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting what? Different results. I was going into my meetings again and again with the same bad habits that I had picked up from everyone around me and my corporate job and expecting this time to be the time that somehow I'd knock them out of the park. 

So finally I got fed up and I went on a three year philosophical journey to find answers to this deep metaphysical question. Why do bad things happen to good data? The data is perfectly sound. I vetted it three times. It's statistically significant. What is going on? And I would find all kinds of interesting answers to this question, but the one I found at their root was the most interesting. I'd like for you to meet your audience's brain. Hello brain! May seem hard to believe, but every one you're presenting to in that room actually has one of these and they all kind of work the same way in terms of how they absorb information and are inspired to act on it. 

Because I didn't know this vital information, my presentations or failing two very important goals. The first was to maintain their attention while I'm presenting, that's hard enough. The second is to be memorable enough to inspire them to act afterwards. Not easy. So what I was doing instead was I was diving into my analytics platforms and pulling out every number I had available and then vomiting every single thing that I had onto my stakeholders and I was shocked every time that nothing would happen as a result. 

I love this graphic courtesy of my great analytics friend Tim Wilson, but here's the big eureka moment that I came across as well. A lot of times we think that you know, PowerPoints, the issue or the tool is the issue, but you actually do not need a fancy or expensive data vis platform to tell truly rich and compelling data stories. What you need is a plan, an approach and a toolbox that are going to allow you to do this simply and effectively. I'd like to introduce you to the three pillars of presentation enlightenment. I've tried to distill some of the most actionable tools and mindsets that I have into three core areas. 

Now, before we really dive in, I'd love to do a little bit of Twitter housekeeping. If you would CC me on any tweets, I'd so appreciate it and please don't forget the conference #VAS20 hope you're ready to get started because I am! 

All right! First, the first pillar is so important and it's the one that we skip over the most often, and that is to be your audience. Don't just see your audience, be your audience. Something really magical happens when we take ourselves out of our own shoes and put ourselves in the shoes of the people that we're speaking to. You know, your stakeholder, the words that she's saying may be can you present some campaign results? But a lot of times when your stakeholder went to stakeholder school, they didn't get trained in how to articulate exactly what it is they need. Really effective presentations look at the audience from a needs perspective. So you want to get in her head, ask, what do I really need right now? What's top of mind? What are my greatest aspirations? What are the big hairy goals for this quarter? You know, what do I want to aspire to? What's going to get me promoted? What's keeping me up at night? What are my busy biggest obstacles and hurdles that I have to cross that are just really, you know, keeping me awake. And finally what would make me successful? Whether it was this month, this quarter, this year. Think of your stakeholders bonuses, you know, make it about them. So that is the first thing I would say is so important about being your audience. 

Another incredibly invaluable tool I came across for helping to think about what your audience is really looking for is a storytelling technique for presentations and I've sourced it direct from Ted. Now, while you may not be giving Ted talks anytime soon, I hope you do one day, one of their tools is incredibly valuable I think for any presentation. It's called the throughline. Every single Ted talk requires one of these and it's defined as the connecting theme that ties together each narrative element in a presentation, a connecting theme that's not an update of every number that's in the system. It's a single theme. In other words, it's your presentation summarized in a single sentence. I know that sounds like a tall order. I have great visual tool that I have for thinking about the through line, is a strong quarter rope onto which you will attach all of the elements that are part of the idea that you're building. So when I'm visualizing and brainstorming my content, I imagine this rope and ask, can I hook this idea on? If not, I toss it out. Now there is a formula I've developed for creating a really compelling through line and this is how it first you start about what your presenting about. Is it a particular campaign? Were you asked to come with a certain piece of information? Next, hint at what you've found, the conflict. That's a key part of data storytelling that's often missing from presentations, but you don't want to give away the whole secret sauce. 

Finally, hint that you have a solution and what it entails. That will leave them thirsting for more. So here are some great examples of through lines that I've collected through some of my past presentations. You can see what I mean first, "Our Q3 AB testing netted a positive gain of 16% conversion and continue to grow another 10% in Q4 with our new test recommendations". I'd said what I'm talking about, I hinted at a conflict or a possibility and hinted at the solution. "Our search marketing program efficiency declined during May and we found three reasons for why this may have happened and what to do about it". Or, "We'll show you how the capabilities of our new email marketing platform could dramatically increase our engagement rates". 

Sometimes it's not a data story, but it's something more persuasive that can be used to. So the through line is an incredibly valuable tool that I'd love for you to think about in your future presentations when you're thinking about how to beat your audience. Alright, the next pillar is so vital. It's to use your tools wisely. How you use your presentation tools is a critical juncture and it can lead you to creating a presentation deck that either acts like your best wing person, at a bar or whatnot, and truly supports you along the way. Or you can create a visual version of Kanye West who climbs up on stage or your conference table grabs the mic and steals your thunder. That's exactly what is happening with a lot of our presentations today with PowerPoint and Google slides and keynote kind of becoming the pervasive linear tool that we use. We have been inundated with a global epidemic of really boring, kind of ugly and absolutely bizarre presentation slides. Yes, I'd like to point out that there is a bunny and a hotdog on the same slide here and apparently they are somehow correlated. I swear I did not make this up. And you know, it's so easy to place the blame on the tools because they must be broken in some way. So let's find another fancy platform or tool right? But I honestly don't think it's a PowerPoint problem or a keynote problem or a Google slides problem. In my view, it's a people problem. As the population of business professionals, we are categorically not prepared to use these programs as a tool for delivering our insights with us. 

Now to our defense, what we could use more of in these tools is a bit more control to keep us from running a muck and enforcing design best practices. But until they do that for us, it's our job to learn how to control ourselves and what's the first control that I can give you that will instantly transform your presentations. Get ready for it. It's bullet points! I'm going to make this very clear. Bullet points as they're currently done are killing your presentations. Okay? That's probably why they call them bullets. I can't think of another reason. I mean look at this. I promise you if you present your information as a wall of bullets like this, you will immediately murder your presentations, chances for success and your audiences attention. 

Now this is so important that I created a somewhat provocative and disturbing analogy for you to think about. If you're not sure this is going to fly with you. So just imagine that you're at your presentation and everyone that matters is there and you suddenly decide to stand up on the conference table and trench. Go flash everybody. Yup, that's what you did. Coats open, eyes are all over the place, goodies are out and you're like, "Guys, look at me!" But it's too late. You have completely lost their attention. And that is because like a trench coat flash, bullet-points expose all of your information to the audience at once instead of allowing the brain to do what it does best, which is to take in single pieces of information at a time. So what you want to think about is little less trenchcoat flash, a little more strip tease and I will explain exactly what that means and that is exactly how provocative this is going to get. 

So not just, it's not enough to just tell you to stop using bullet points. I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to ask why. Why do we love our bullet points so much? I think on the surface it's clear it's what everyone else is doing. So we do it ourselves. But I think at the root it's deeper. I think that we use our slides like a crutch to read off of instead of taking the time to prepare. And I want you to repeat this mantra over and over until sinks in. Your slides are for your audience, not you. Okay? They are not a script. They are a tool to deliver information into your audience's brain. Your stakeholders don't want you to read them a bedtime story. They can do that at home. They want you to talk to them, engage them in a conversation and this is not going to do it. Now I learned this, you know, challenging philosophy from an awesome book called Slideology by Nancy Duarte and in it she had a philosophy that really changed how I thought. It was to learn to create ideas, not slides, single ideas as in one idea for every slide. In fact, you may want to use more than one slide for just one idea, like a split slide technique that allows you to build anticipation and set the pace for your audience. 

Now what this may mean is taking one heavily bulleted slide and blowing it up into a collection of smaller and digestible ideas and you don't have to worry that you're going to have too many slides because if you're doing this right, no one's going to be counting, and last I checked, we don't pay per slide, they're all free. Now this can be a really challenging practice to integrate into your process. So I do have a bit of a compromise. It's called the story point method and it has a more brain friendly way of presenting bullet points for lists and checklists and processes. So you can check that out at leapica.com/betterbullets. 

I'd like to do a quick pulse check and just make sure you're on track with me right now. You're welcome to leave comments, what you think. Of course I'm going to continue with exactly what I had, so I'm hoping you were with me. 

So the next important control I can give you is to resist the fluff. As hard as that might be. I defined slide fluff as all ancillary, visually distracting doodads on every single slide that only distracts you. That includes logos, watermarks, page numbers, bars in the bottom and other fluffy doodads that do not belong on every single slide in a big distracting way. Logos are especially important because I'm pretty sure everyone in your meeting knows the company that you're working for and doesn't need to be reminded of that. So it's a really tough thing to try to adjust but believe me, something really sinister is happening. All of that fluff is really distracting and it's only serving to take their attention away from you and your insights and you don't even know it's happening. I learned the principle from two amazing books called PresentationZen and Design: Amazing Toolkits for Learning, two incredibly important tools that were missing from my tool belt. And those tools were simplicity and intention. Ah, simplicity where less is more and intention where every single design stroke on my slides had a purpose. Those books really taught me how to design like a designer would and even think that way. But this is not something that we got in our analytics training. In fact, it was found that only 7% of professionals who present for living actually get design training, which I think feeds that skills gap. That is too important to let go for these coming years. Now, if you're thinking that you're not a professional designer, no problem at all. This is about the most advanced design artistic work I can come up with. So obviously you can see that you don't have to be a professional designer to design truly effective slides. 

The next really powerful way to use your tools that I feel is under-utilized and corporate is to harness the power of real imagery in your presentations. An amazing book I read called Brain Rules by John Medina taught me that vision is the human being's strongest sense it is for our survival to remember where things were that were really important and we haven't changed much since our days on the Serengeti. Even through to today. Powerful and relevant imagery increases the recall of information in our audience's brains and they also have the uncanny ability to stir emotion within our audience. Now, how are we going to get people emotional about our conversion rates and whatnot? Well, this is where you learn the mechanics of telling the customer's story. Story is the most powerful structure and element you can include in a presentation. It activates all of these areas within the brain. Not kidding. There is no other element that does this, not even data or charts. 

So what does that mean in the context of a business presentation? Well, this is how I once presented conversion results for a lead capture forum. And I'm sure I started watching my audience check their email in front of my face. And I'm thinking now like what was I thinking? You know, if Game of Thrones was on, would I, you know, have typos and have bullet points and say this is a show about dragons and there's a throne made of dead people, swords and every character you love will most likely parish. Of course you're not going to watch. But that's kind of how we're expecting people to pay attention in these meetings. So how about getting more visual where I decided to use a picture of a potential customer who's really frustrated that you know, he had to leave the landing page. That's a big number. Make your audience feel it and make them generate empathy for your customers so that they are inspired to act. So that's just one idea. 

Now in terms of using imagery for your presentations, I have great news. Your data is imagery and it's a powerful tool for creating inspiration. That brings us to our third and final pillar. Maximize the absorption of data in their brain. Maximizing data absorption is not about making things look pretty or snazzy or exciting. Through all requests that I've received, it's about that simplicity and intentionality comes through here.

First, you need to have a really solid approach for choosing the most appropriate visualization for your message. And that's something my peek a protocol can help you do. And it's a skill that you have to learn over time with practice. But one of my favorite resources for learning how is Effective Data Visualization by Stephanie Evergreen. She has a fantastic business question oriented way of helping you choose the most effective visuals. And I'm not talking about 3d exploding donut charts here, sorry. So once you've chosen that, a lot of times we have to do some work around not plopping our data into something really gross looking with default formatting and then walking away. So what I do with all of my charts is this special formula that I created called the "chart detox". Got to do it. And you know it means not starting with something like this where this is a default setting. Believe it or not, you know this is not going to help communicate very well. It means taking just a few steps. You can see how clean that looks. Now by eliminating 3d, removing a background, the border, the gridlines, the axes, picking a better font choice, labeling data directly. And notice I have uniform neutral coloring here because one of the most powerful data story tools in your tool belt is color. Notice how that bar suddenly pops out at you and it's called, strategic coloring. It is so simple and it's one of the most underutilized storytelling tools in the corporate world. Now we have a beautiful chart, but we're not done in telling our story. You know, we might start with a title that's like, "Oh here are the number of sales per channel," zombies, zombie, zombie zombies! So you really want to make use of that incredibly valuable real estate up in the corner of that, not with what it is, but what the chart means. So you can switch that out with a direct observation of your data. Something like paid search generates the highest volume of sales with a small subtitle underneath that does explain what the chart is if people need that reference. This is called a McKinsey title and it will help guarantee that no matter how someone interpreted your chart, the message you were trying to convey stays clear. Notice also that I changed the color of paid search to match the bar in the graph to create a connective tissue that their eyes can follow. Now also notice that I added an ellipsis at the end of my title. What does that indicate? That there's something else coming like a but or an and. 

This is a vital storytelling tool as well. It builds anticipation with your audience which snaps them to attention and then what I can do here is add a second chart that now contrasts each channel with conversion rate. I changed that title to match my new insight like, "Oh, paid search is great, but we really should be looking at email". This is called a side by side bar chart, and I use it often to compare two different metrics by the same categories. It's a great alternative to dual axis bar charts. All of these strategies and techniques I learned from a really essential book called the Wallstreet Journal Guide to Information Graphics. I never let it leave my desk and it is super easy and fast to read and really helpful. In fact, I want to give you the chance to take a look at all, well not all of the books, but a sampling of the most impactful books that I've come across in my journey. If you want to take note of that really quickly. All of these books will offer something really incredibly profound to changing your process. And that is the three pillars. 

So let's quickly recap each of these pillars to lock it in your brain because repetition locks information into your audience's brain. First "be your audience" don't just see them, be them. Think about what they need to be successful and overcome their hurdles and create a through line for your presentation that gets right to the heart of what they are going to learn and need. "Use your tools wisely". I didn't use anything fancier than PowerPoint for this. I have over a hundred slides in it, but I'm hoping you didn't notice because each slide visually supported my theme. Finally, "maximize the absorption of data in their minds". Very simple and intentional data best practices can really help your information land and minimize confusion and Zombification. So there are the three pillars. 

Now if you want to grab a download of all of the different techniques and things I talked about today, you can request a copy of this session handout totally for free at leahpika.com/VAS handout. I'll make sure that link is available to you as well and it will have everything from this talk that you need to remember. So I'd like to leave you with a little bit of wisdom from the late Aldous Huxley as you begin to go on your journey. And that is, "facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored". And while that may be true, I think getting ignored sucks. I don't like it for me. I really don't like it for you. My hope is that I've given you just a few different things you can think about and try that are going to allow your insights to pave the way for you and your organization to reach that insightful place and take action. So with that, I bid you to please Viz responsibly my friends. Namaste. 

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