Techs Must Tell the Data’s Story, Not Just Report It

Top 4 Challenges Technical Presenters Face
This four-part series considers the four biggest challenges facing presenters who make highly technical, detail or data-driven presentations. It’s true that these pitfalls await any unsuspecting presenter regardless of the presentation’s content and focus. But the dry abstraction inherent to more technical presentations adds to the obstacles. Luckily, these obstacles remind us of opportunities to become even better communicators.
Challenge #1 discussed “Lousy Listeners”. Challenge #2 looked at how “Bad Visuals Can Make a Presentation Worse”. Here’s the third part in the series…

Techs Must Tell the Data’s Story—Don’t Just Report Data.

Top 4 Challenges Technical Presenters Face

All too often, we present technical information as if read directly from an Excel spreadsheet with all the enthusiasm, emphasis, and emotion of some distant relative of HAL. Perhaps, it’s because we spend so much time in the data—gathering, processing, and reprocessing it. Do we think we convey greater weight—or even impartiality—with an affect-less delivery? Maybe we ass/u/me our audience will be as unmoved as ever by our latest findings. And so on…

The data you work with — whether its numbers, widgets, analysis, whatever — has a story to tell. That story may not always unfold before you as a Shakespearean drama, in three acts, or five. Then again, it might. Once you start thinking about the data you present in terms of story-telling forms, you may surprise yourself with just how dramatic all those bits of information can be. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of casting the data in terms of “real world” examples that non-techs can understand more quickly and clearly.

Speaking of clarity, I’ve become aware of an ironic situation that sometimes arises in the context of more technically-inclined folks presenting to more luddite-like counterparts. Specifically, some techs seem to fear that they will appear less competent, less expert if they “dumb down the data” (as they put it). I suppose what’s meant by “dumbing down” is that we’re leaving the domain of “talking tech” and entering the plebeian world of “talking turkey”. We’re talking about explaining something to someone else — so that they will understand what they need to understand. No less, but also, no more. If there’s dumbing down to be done, then it’s a show of our expertise and understanding that we can translate the highly technical stuff into something our non-tech counterparts can understand. The more successfully we engage our non-tech audience — the more able we are to bridge the divide between our world and theirs — the better we look, the more expert we are.

If “every picture tells a story”, as Rod Stewart assures us in song; then, every data point paints a picture. After all, data is just a kind of picture: a picture of some observed fact about the world at a given moment in time. That picture tells a story. So we almost have to go out of our way to avoid telling the data’s story.

It’s true that sometimes we don’t have to tell Data’s story when we talk to those who speak the same language. There, we can communicate with maximum efficiency—no translation needed. This is not only true in the bowels of the lab or at the ends of computer terminals. Sometimes it’s even a great way to reach out to the world—precisely because only a select few will understand and respond. Remember Google’s famous “Help Wanted” billboard ad?


Using a technique Microsoft and others had previously used to target the mathiest of the math-ers, Google’s billboard job ad read: “{first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits e}.com”. The answer,, would lead a puzzle-sleuth to a Web page with yet another equation to solve.

David Zehren often uses the statistician’s concept of “standard deviation” to illustrate different ways of explaining the same concept to different audiences.

As David explains, If you do statistics this equation not only makes sense to you, but it's one perfectly sensible way to convey standard deviation to another person who does stats.


It's a standard formula for “standard deviation.” Most folks who understand that formula, probably need no explanation for what standard deviation is—but if they did, that formula would be a nice, tidy, fast way to convey the information to them.

Then David wonders aloud: what if you’re trying to explain the concept of standard deviation to your 20-something year-old child — who has good basic math skills, but doesn't know statistics?  That formula above won't work, so you tell a story: Your child gets invited to a party and the invite says there’ll be roughly equal numbers of males and females. Further, the average age of the guests is going to be 23.  Perfect.  But once at the party, your child is dismayed to find that the guests are either “super old” (in their ’40s) or they’re babies.  And that’s when you explain the one piece of information your child needed to know that this party would be lame.  Next time, ask What's the standard deviation?.  Standard deviation would have revealed how spread out the ages are — how far from age 23 most of the guests will be. And so on.

When techs talk to other techs with similar expertise and understanding, there’s no reason to translate data-dense information into anything other than whatever is the most efficient means of communicating. Our presentation problems really start when we have to explain ourselves to… just about anyone else. Sometimes it’s a tech with a different area of expertise, or an analyst or statistician who must process data we provide. Sometimes we have to explain ourselves to managers and higher-ups who understand our subject matter, but aren’t as close to the metal. Sometimes we have to explain ourselves to money — to people who may not understand how the pudding’s made, but who have everything to do with whether it gets made at all.

Let’s face it, we’re human—even the smartest, most number-crunching intensive eggheads among us. Until we perfect the Vulcan mind meld or good ol’ fashioned mind reading, we understand each other best through our stories.

Remember that there’s something important, interesting, informative about the data you present: First, there’s a reason you’re going to present it to an audience. Second, there’s a reason that data matters more than the other data you’ve chosen not to present. If you just report the data, it lives down to its dry, dull, boring stereotype. When you tell the data’s story, you help your audience see the data in all it’s dramatic glory. And unless you’re presenting to an audience of peers, the odds are strong that your audience will understand the data’s story much better than they’ll understand the data itself. The better your audience understands the information you present, the more engaged they’ll be — and the better you look too.

Next time we’ll consider the fourth key challenge technical presenters face: technical presenters need to present to theeyes not to the shoes.

The first two challenges we looked at were:

ZEHREN♦FRIEDMAN can help your data denizens and science sleuths be more effective communicators with a presentation skills seminar designed specifically for technical presenters: “Helping Techs Talk to Mere Mortals” is a two-day, highly experiential, hands-on seminar for six to ten people.

Contact ZEHREN♦FRIEDMAN for more information. Or read more about other Presentation Skills courses.


Jamie Fillmore is a graphic design and technology consultant.