Presentation Skills: Talking about Visuals

A tutorial on how to present graphs, tables, and charts in an effective and engaging way

Many formal presentations include having to talk about numbers. These numbers could be research data, sales figures, or many other types of statistics. Numbers in a presentation, however, are not very memorable, especially not if you also need to talk about how different numbers relate to each other. Because data, exact sales figures, etc. are so difficult to remember, it often makes sense to present them in some kind of visual, like a graph, a chart, or a table. However, talking about these types of visuals is difficult to do, and not doing it well will often cause your audience to lose interest in what you have to say. Presenting graphs, charts and tables only works if it is done in an effective, engaging, and well-structured way. To achieve this, attention needs to be paid to:

  • Introducing the visual
  • Commenting on, and introducing the visual
  • Talking about change and development

Good visuals need to be highly memorable and,generally speaking, when presenting numbers and statistics, the simpler your visual is, the more people are likely to remember it. It also means that anything you don’t talk about should not be in the visual.

Good visuals should also reduce the amount of talking for the speaker. If the graph represents something that could be explained in an effective way using only a few words, you should not use a visual because then that would only be a distraction.

Finally, a good visual should help the speaker. This means that graphs, charts and tables should only be used for details that are difficult to explain. The visual should speak for the presenter and make his job easier, so you should always ask yourself whether the visual is necessary and whether it actually makes your presentation better.

Another important question you should ask yourself is which type of visual is most effective for what you want to achieve. Graphs, tables, and charts all do different things well, and it is therefore important to select the right type of visual.

A line graph, for example, works well if you want to show how a quantity of something develops over time. For example, this could be how many muffins were sold per day during a given week.

A bar graph, on the other hand, works well for comparisons. When you want to visualize in which month to most ice cream was sold, for instance.

Pie charts are often used when showing percentages, or quantities as part of a larger total.

Tables are of the most difficult to talk about because they often show many individual numbers on the screen at once without showing a connection between them, or a clear development. For this reason, when using a table, it may be a good idea to focus the audience’s attention on specific details by highlighting the ones you are talking about while talking about them.

Finally, flow charts are good at showing processes, or other things that can be divided into steps with a certain order.

As mentioned before, it is very important that you choose the correct type of visual for the right job, because failing to do so will most likely cause your audience to lose interest in your message.

Introducing the Visual

After you have put your visual on the screen, the next step is shifting the focus of the audience to the screen. You need to tell them to stop looking at you, and start looking at the screen. You can do this simply by pointing at the screen and saying something like:

Let’s have a look at this.

or

As you can see here, …

After you have told the people you are addressing to focus their attention on the screen, you need to tell them what they are looking at, because you don’t want them to spend their time studying the visual while they ought to be listening to you. You should explain the visual by saying something like:

This graph shows the amount of traffic to our website throughout the year.

 or

This bar graph compares the number of people who commuted by car to those who commuted by bicycle between 2015 and 2020.

The next step is to make a general comment about the graph as a whole, or about a general pattern or trend, like in these examples:

As you can see, the average turnover shows a steady upward trend.

or

What is clear is that the number of visitors to the Netherlands fluctuates throughout the year.

The final step in introducing your visual is to highlight the part of the visual you want to talk about in more detail. You could say something like:

If we look at 2018, …

Or

The period between March and September shows …

Commenting on the Visual

After you have highlighted a specific area in the visual, you need to make a comment about it. This means telling your audience what a specific number or data point in the visual represents. You give meaning to the numbers. For example, you could say:

2017 shows a significant spike in the number of online sales.

or

Here the table shows an anomaly in the results.

Then, after commenting on a specific section of the visual, you need to interpret it. You tell the audience what the underlying causes were that explain the detail you chose to discuss, or which conclusion can be drawn from it. To illustrate, you could say something like:

This number can be explained by the abnormally hot summer we had.

or

What we can learn from this is that we need to increase production.

It is important to repeat the cycle HighlightComment Interpret for each detail you choose to discuss. In this way the structure of your talk becomes clear.

Change and Development

A mentioned, after you have selected the best type of visual for presenting you data on the screen, you need to talk about it. Generally speaking, this is difficult to do in an engaging way, so it is easy to lose your audience’s interest while doing it, but in order to make sure that they won’t lose interest, you need to use effective language that can capture your points in a concise way. When talking about a line graph, for instance, it is important to use a range of different vocabulary that doesn’t only comment on how the data develops – so, whether the line goes up or down – it is also, helpful to comment on the speed at which it happens or how significant the changes that you choose to discuss are. The verbs in the table can help you do this:

increase/decreasedeclinehit a lowplummet
rise/fallremainstabilizedrop
fluctuategrowshrinkplunge
recoverpeakslumpShoot up
bottom outexpandnarrowTake off

Here are some example sentences:

The table illustrates that profits have stabilized during this quarter.

or

Last year, stock prices plummeted due to the trade dispute.

If you want to comment on the speed and the importance of the developments in the graph you can add effective adjective or adverbs to your comments, like in the table.

substantialnotabledisastrous
rapidspectacularsteady
moderatedisappointingslight
enormousencouragingsignificant

So, you could say something like:

The graph suggests an encouraging trend.

or

In 2018, overhead costs were cut significantly.

Conclusion

The example below shows a basic example of talking about a graph in an effective way, using a clear and concise structure.

So, I’d like to draw your attention to this graph.(Drawing attention to the screen) What it illustrates is the number of people killed in car accidents between 2000 and 2010 (Explaining the visual).  As you can see, the number fluctuated significantly during that time (General comment), but I’d like to focus on the year 2014 (Highlighting), when the number of casualties increased dramatically (Commenting). The explanation for this sudden rise in deaths can be found in the extreme weather during that period (Interpreting).

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