How to present data to stakeholders
There comes a time in every research project when the actual ‘research’ comes to an end. At this stage, you’ve collated your data and extracted useful insights, and it’s time to take the critical next step: presenting your findings back to your stakeholders.
I remember the first time that I had to present data to stakeholders. My team and I had just run a series of user interviews to learn more about how user researchers seek out and use new learning resources. We’d identified the high-level takeaways and pulled them into a slide deck to take to the leadership team.
Now came the scary part. With the lead researcher on my team, I stood up in front of the group of stakeholders and bumbled my way through the findings. Thankfully, I was with a very capable researcher and we managed to get across all of the important points – but the experience taught me a lot about how to present to stakeholders effectively.
One of the most effective techniques that you can use as a presenter is that of the storyteller. Start off by reminding your audience of the status quo, and then reveal the path to a better way of doing things. This sets up a conflict that needs to be resolved.
By establishing this tension, you’re in a better position to persuade your audience to adopt a new viewpoint. Harvard Business Review has a great article from Nancy Duarte that makes for an excellent starting point.
Make it visual
Your findings need to be understandable, not pretty. It’s your job to take everything that you’ve learned, distill it down into the most relevant points for your stakeholders, and then present it in such a way that they’ll be able to take the information on board. A key aspect of success here depends on the visuals.
Here are some key things to keep in mind when it comes to the visual aspects of your presentation:
- Don’t overwhelm your audience with numbers: Use simple formatting, commas and skip unnecessary decimals. Also, right-align columns of numbers so that they form a kind-of bar chart automatically, and your stakeholders can quickly locate the largest numbers.
- Avoid 3D charts (unless they’re the best option): 3D presentation charts are tempting, but they introduce more cognitive load by making people process another element. Of course, there are exceptions.
- Consider something other than the pie chart: Sure, it’s rare that you’ll see a presentation without a pie chart, but they are far from the best option. Why? Because humans aren’t as good at judging the relative differences in circles as opposed to lines. We can much more easily process a bar graph than a pie chart.
Encourage feedback and questions
You’re not just presenting the findings of your research to inform your stakeholders, you also want agreement. Add to that, this is also a great opportunity to gather more information as well as any feedback.
Don’t be afraid of the Q&A. Ask your stakeholders if they have any questions or feedback on what you’ve just shown them. There are a few ways to do this. You can ask for questions throughout the presentation, at the end, or even send a recap email after the fact to gather written responses.
Know who you’re talking to
You need to know exactly who you’re presenting to as well as what their priorities and interests are. For example, if you’re speaking to a marketing manager or the leadership team, drill into how your research could impact areas like your free to paid conversion rate, revenue in general or customer churn.
Keep it short, but have more detail available
No one really wants to be sitting in a room listening to a presentation for 2 hours. Try and get all of your key points across within 30 minutes and allot extra time at the end for questions and discussion.
In short, focus on the high-level findings of your research, but have more data available and ready to send out.
Have a TL;DR
It’s a well-known fact that people in upper management positions are often time-poor. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see smartphones and laptops come out in particularly long meetings. If you’re presenting to a group of these people, one of the best ways to give your findings the highest chance of sinking in is through a high-level overview slide, also known as a too long, didn’t read (TL;DR) slide.
The objective of this slide is to give your audience the key takeaways and most important findings. You may also want to insert links to more detailed explanations as well as your suggested next steps.
This is also a great tool for anyone who’s unable to attend your presentation – they’ll know exactly what they’re looking at without having to come to their own conclusions.
Give concrete recommendations
Last, but certainly not least, make sure that no matter what you’re presenting, you have concrete next steps outlined clearly for your audience. For every issue or challenge that you identify, ensure that you have a clear recommendation for how to address that problem. Yes, even if it seems trivial, it’s your job to outline the recommended next steps.
Your stakeholders obviously don’t have to take any of the actions that you propose, but you’re already deep in the problem space and so in the best position to propose further actions.
Presenting the findings of a research project is an understandably scary undertaking for many researchers – but it shouldn’t be. Remember that you’re there to surface insights to the people that need to hear them, and that this is the best possible way to do so. The last thing you want is for your findings to never see the light of day outside of a shared drive folder.
So remember, focus on creating a useful, interesting presentation that speaks to the people in the room – and don’t be afraid to take questions! Good luck!