Between interpretation and using the results to make decisions, there is often a need to present the findings with the interpretation. Sometimes this is not true. For example, if the group interpreting the results is the same group making the decision, then interpretation and decision-making can happen in one meeting without a formal presentation of results. In other settings, however, it will be necessary to take the information interpreted by one group and prepare it for another group to use.
In these settings, it is important to present the information in the most actionable ways, which rarely includes a formal report, long PowerPoint presentation, extensive charts and graphs, or other approaches that overload the audience with information.
Instead, you want to present the information most relevant to the decision at hand in the most accessible way. This is where storytelling comes into using data for decision-making. Whether you have qualitative data, quantitative data, or both, when you present the results, you want to tell the story that surfaced during the interpretation of the data.
Consider the culture of the group making the decision. Are they accustomed to more formal presentations? Do they often work off a flip chart to document their thinking as they work their way towards a decision? How much paper are they usually flipping through? It’s helpful to bring information into their conversation in a way that matches how they are used to receiving information.
Your materials, in whatever format they come, would ideally include the results and:
- A reminder of the decision point you’re there to inform and the questions your data helps to answer;
- The sources of the information and how the information was collected;
- Who participated in guiding the collection of data and interpretation of results; and
- Limitations of the information so they do not over-interpret what it means (e.g. making sure they understand it is based on three-year-old surveillance data, or that it lacks the adequate demographic breakdown needed to understand disparities by neighborhood).
At Spark, our rule of thumb is that regardless of whether we are using PowerPoint, handouts, or verbal presentations, we want to make sure we are talking less than our audience. This may sound contrary to the point of a presentation, but is a key factor when ensuring the results can be used. Rather than presenting for 15 minutes, consider pointing out a couple of compelling findings before asking the group to process what they mean, and how the findings help them think about the decision they need to make or even what surprised them about the results. Then present for a few more minutes and ask for another reflection.
Don’t panic if the group is quiet the first time around – allow the room to be silent as they think about how they want to respond. With each question and discussion period, most groups will become increasingly animated.
This discussion is just as important, if not more, than what you present. By discussing the information, the participants are connecting to it, applying it to how they currently think about the problem or solution, and investigating the implications of it.
The best way to communicate your results depends not only on the purpose and audience, but also on the results themselves (i.e., whether they are positive or negative), the number of times you will share the results, etc.
Formal reporting includes written reports, memos, white papers, issue briefs, policy briefs, and is most appropriate when:
- Your audience is external or wants more formal documents;
- Accountability is required or the stakes are high;
- You have surprising or very negative results;
- You have a longer or more flexible time horizon;
- There are multiple upcoming opportunities to use the information; and/or
- You have no opportunity to meet with the decision-makers to share the results.
In contrast, informal (presentation handouts, fact sheets, 1-pagers) is most appropriate when:
- Your audience is internal or wants dialogue and group processing;
- Your purpose includes learning;
- The results are useful, but not surprising or particularly negative;
- The timing is very rapid;
- You are most likely to use information only once or twice; and/or
- There are opportunities to talk through results with the audience.
We’ve all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. Visuals can help grab attention, make your presentation more memorable, and can often convey findings more clearly and concisely than text thereby increasing the likelihood your findings are used!
When you have quantitative data (numbers), one of the most common challenges includes knowing which of the many visuals you have the ability to create are worth creating. Think carefully about the questions your decision-makers are asking, and put together only those visuals that provide the most actionable information. For example, if the question is which neighborhoods to prioritize for a new policy or program, the charts and graphs that give an overall understanding of the city broken down by race/ethnicity, poverty, etc. may not be useful. The charts and graphics that compare neighborhood to neighborhood and do those same breakdowns within neighborhoods might be much more actionable.
Charts and Graphs
Charts and graphs are the most common forms of visuals, and with good reason. They quickly summarize results in an easily understandable format and can be an effective mechanism to show trends, patterns, and differences or similarities across groups. In order to effectively and accurately convey the main points, charts and graphs should be clear, focused, and easy to read. Fortunately, there are a number of resources on the web that can walk you through the fundamentals of designing strong charts and graphs as well as other resources that can help you with creating amazing data visualizations.
- This checklist from Stephanie Evergreen can help you think through the visual aspects of presenting your findings to ensure they add to your presentation rather than detract from it.
- This blog by Ann Kemery focuses on analysis and data visualization, and covers a wide variety of topics including improving your Microsoft Excel skills.
- Tableau Public allows you to create a wide variety of visualizations that can also be easily stored and shared online.
Like charts and graphs, tables are an effective way of presenting large amounts of data. They can help you easily summarize findings as well as help your reader compare across categories, making connections they may not otherwise have made if the information were presented in narrative form. Some things to keep in mind when creating tables:
- Limit visual distraction such as double lines or too many cell borders;
- Allow enough space between rows so the table is not too crowded;
- Be concise; and
- When in doubt, align left.
Google maps are perfect for embedding on websites or even printing and, with some simple additions, can tell stories beyond location. You can color-code sections of a map to show prevalence of an issue or characteristic of the population. You can also set maps to reveal additional information when a user clicks on it or hovers over various sections if you’re presenting in an electronic format.
This Google tutorial will help you create custom maps using Google Maps.
Infographics take graphics to the next level by creating a visual that tells a story. Using text, clip art, graphs, and data, this format is attractive and efficient in the sharing of data and works well in both print and electronic formats.
While the mechanics of creating an infographic are relatively straightforward, you’ll want to first consider who you are designing it for and what results are the most important, surprising, or novel and worth highlighting. The story you tell visually will likely be different from the data you would share in a presentation or through a formal report.
Depending on the format you choose, stories can be an effective way to bring your findings to life. Unlike facts and figures, a compelling story can make your findings relatable thereby making them more actionable. Stories tap into our emotions, help us understand and place data in context, all the while building a personal connection to the information. Good stories are about characters your audience can relate to, they transport your audience into the world of the story, and they elicit emotions – negative or positive.
To learn more about the power of the story, check out this brief from The Colorado Trust, authored by Spark Policy, on the power of storytelling in a health advocacy initiative.