Making Data Meaningful - Presentation Advice from the UN

Posted by

The United Nations (UN) is probably not the first place you would think of going to for presentation advice. So I'm glad that Christina O'Shaughnessy, who I met again at the Presentation Zen Studio in Paris recently, pointed me to a useful series of documents that the UN has published, called Making Data Meaningful.

Large organisations, such as the UN, collect a lot of numbers - and then someone has to make sense of them and eventually present them in one form or another. The UN, or rather the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), collected tips and best practices and wrote them down in these documents. And best of all, they're available free of charge from the UNECE website.

Part 1 of the series is called "A guide to writing stories about numbers". As the title suggests, it introduces the idea of storytelling in the context of statistics. Part 2 is called "A guide to presenting statistics" and provides tips on how to (and how not to) present statistical data. It even includes some background information on human perception to help you make the most of your data graphs.

Here are a few choice quotes from these two documents. These shouldn't come as a surprise if you've read your Presentation Zen, but are a useful reminder in a context that is known for its dry and possibly boring content:

A statistical story is one that doesn't just recite data in words. It tells a story about the data. Readers tend to recall ideas more easily than they do data. A statistical story conveys a message that tells readers what happened, who did it, when and where it happened, and hopefully, why and how it happened.
The important decision you must make is to pinpoint an audience: who are you writing for? Quite simply, the audience is in the driver's seat. By and large, what the audience wants is what you should be giving them.
A chart is not always the most appropriate tool to present statistical information. Sometimes, a text and/or data table may provide a better explanation to your audience and save you considerable time and effort.

You have to keep in mind that both of these guides are mainly written with documents, not presentations, in mind. So tips about the writing style are not to be taken literally for your next presentation (don't put too much text on your slides!) but should still help you think about how to narrate the story of your data.

In addition to general advice (as quoted above), both documents are full of examples, mostly in a before/after form, clearly explaining what's bad about the original and showing how it can be improved.

If you have to present a lot of numbers, you should definitely have a look at "Making Data Meaningful".

If you'd like me to talk or write about this topic, you can hire me to do so.
Please email me for details.
Creative Commons Licence "Making Data Meaningful - Presentation Advice from the UN" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.