“Information overload is rarely the function of volume of information, but rather, quality of information.”
– Edward Tufte
We’ve all sat through a presentation that has left us with a feeling of “information overload”. We’ve seen PowerPoints covered in multitudes of charts and tables, and slides with too much text. In instances like this, it doesn’t matter how great the charts look or how well designed the slides are. The issue at hand has less to do with the visual design of the content and more to do with the overall information design.
Strong information design tells a story that is meaningful, relevant, and important. It has a flow that is clear, logical, insightful, and persuasive. It introduces new concepts or frameworks that show the problem in a new light, and contain messages that are logical, compelling, and substantiated. Once the foundation of information design is laid, language and visuals are used to clarify and present the information in the most clear and straightforward way.
To avoid the common pitfalls of client work, we’ve established a five-part process that utilizes information design to improve and enhance our executive presentations.
Start with the End in Mind
When given a statement of work or a client brief, the most important step to take first is discerning what key questions need to be answered and what goals the client has. By creating an outline to refer back to, your team will stay on track and ensure that they are addressing your client needs.
It then helps to identify the target audience of your work. Are you going to be presenting this information to C-Suite executives? Or, will this information filter down to Directors and Managers? Tailoring the content to the audience will keep the viewer engaged in your presentation and will be more persuasive in encouraging future action.
Keep in mind, the goal of your presentation is not just to show the information and insights, but to show what to do next. As you begin, make sure you are identifying action steps for where the client should go from here.
Find Important Insights
Your presentations should be less focused on information and more focused on insights. Most teams have trouble identifying the difference between the two. Information is the surface-level data only and is typically one dimensional – The most obvious example is statistics. Insights however answer critical questions by talking about root causes. Oftentimes, insights look at an old problem in a new way and are the culmination of multiple dimensions of research. Your insights should be formed through a combination of metrics, field research, and research on tangential topics.
You can dig into your insights by asking “why” and “how” information is the way it is, and, more importantly, asking, “why does it matter to our client?” Switching up points of view when looking at the data can also help you expand on your insights.
Use a Framework and Critical Devices
Frameworks are used to organize the story. Strong frameworks not only demonstrate the insights but point the story towards the desired conclusions. There are dozens of frameworks to choose from, but the four most popular frameworks are:
- Process Flows – Sales Process and Call Flows
- Lifecycles – Customer Lifecycle and Rep Lifecycle
- Categories – Organizing by person/role, or by department
- The Big 5 – Big 5 Themes, or Big 5 Recommendations.
Choose your framework by identifying what would be most useful for your client.
Critical Devices are used within the framework to present insights in a fresh perspective. These devices juxtapose the information to show contrast and create an “epiphany”. A few examples of critical devices that may be helpful are Contrast Matrix, 2×2 Scattergram, Small Multiples, Before & After Snapshots, or Decay Curves.
When you’re developing the content of your presentation, remember to keep one clear message on each page. If there are more, break it up on multiple pages. Keep your content brief by being as direct as possible. You want to only include language and graphics that add value and do not obscure what you are trying to say.
Make your content real by citing your evidence as well as showing your comparisons and benchmarks. It helps to use real-life examples and visuals to keep your audience grounded in reality. Lastly, in your writing, use a compelling tone by being confident and direct. That tone will inspire and motivate your client to act.
Strengthen Your Message with Design
Once you have developed your content you can focus your time on design. When you begin, keep your messaging clean by eliminating visual elements that distract the user from the purpose of the information (otherwise known as “chart-junk”). Make sure to keep consistent margins and headline styles, and don’t use more fonts than necessary.
Make the message on each page pop by ensuring that there is not too much content. You can break up large text blocks through the use of bullets, but make sure that the bullets are short and necessary. Also, be judicious about the use of highlighting – only highlight the most important messages.
When incorporating graphics, make sure that each graphic has a depth of information. To paraphrase the information designer Edward Tufte, “high information graphics convey quantitative depth and statistical integrity whereas data-thin designs provoke suspicions about the quality of data.”
Executive presentations don’t have to fall into the pitfalls of leaving your clients with “information overload”. By carefully planning your information and creating a framework supported by insights, clients will be engaged and spurred to action through your presentation.
About Weber Associates
Weber Associates is a Columbus, OH-based consulting firm. Since 1985, we have blended the creativity of a marketing agency with the analytical rigor of a consultancy to help our clients solve real sales and marketing challenges so they can significantly grow revenues and customer loyalty.