The Right Way to Present Information

I have a pet hate, in fact it is more than that, it is guaranteed to wind me up, start me stuttering, twitching and dribbling from the corner of my mouth.  My pet hate is people dressing up piles of numbers as “analytics” and leaving me blinking at a slide, blankly wondering “what exactly is your point?”

There is a saying that runs something like this:

Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not understanding. Understanding is not wisdom. ~ Anon

What does it mean? Let me give you an example.  Whilst surfing last week I found this chart.

Very pretty, nicely organised, but frankly the only thing you can really deduce from it is that I was sad enough to be looking at supermarket stats on-line.  It would have been easier to read (maybe even moved from data to information) if it looked like this:

supermarket data

  • Sections are grouped clearly
  • Headings, totals and sub totals are obvious
  • Data is aligned so it is easy to read
  • There are no misleading colours or distractions

And it would have meant something (become knowledge) if it looked like this:

supermarket graph

Now I won’t pretend that this is understanding, or heaven forbid, that I am wise, but if you ever have the joy of presenting something to me please please please:

  1. Ask yourself “what is the point that I am making”
  2. Work out the most blindingly obvious way to make it (there is a great book here if you need help)
  3. Put “the point” in really big letters at the top of the slide so I can’t possibly miss it

Otherwise you will just leave me dribbling on my shirt.

dribbling like a baby

Read another opinion 

Image by fimb


  1. I absolutely agree with your view on the tree diagram you found. It’s a really good example of something you see all the time – people using the default presentation tools in Microsoft Office, often choosing the wrong tool for the job. In this case they have used a default org chart (probably in Powerpoint) instead of a chart Excel. Often people will choose a chart but will just accept the default settings and layout – making it hard to extract real insight from the data. The best way to avoid this, as you say, is to be clear of what message you are trying to convey and being honest about whether the chart/table/graphic conveys this effectively.

  2. Hello James
    Excellent illustration. I am of the view that you are showing up an aspect of the way human beings are – unthinking, going with the flow, the default, the easiest option.

    What is missing is being present to another, being present to what is to be communicated, being present to what impact we wish to have on the other person. And once this ‘mindfulness’ is present then we can, if we choose, invoke ‘caring’ which involves conscious effort to ‘do the right thing’ which in this case is to use the right tools, to craft the right message.

    Just writing about it makes me tired. And heck what do I care if you or do not understanding. I am paid to churn out numbers not to generate understanding. Caring takes time, takes effort and I am not convinced that anyone notices anyway. Let’s stick with the default, works for everyone else!


  3. Hi James,
    I learnt an important lesson a number of years ago when it comes to presenting ideas via presentation. And that was: if you put all of your points or headlines together then they should make a good story. If not then go back and redo until they do.

    Simple, right?


    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for your comments gentlemen, I suppose it just comes down to applying a little thought, that is all


  4. The Tree Diagram is manualy compiled and incorrectly lists the total number of convenience stores (wrongly) as 48,056. The suggest method lists the total number of convenience stores (correctly) as 47,446. In both instances the Individual components making up the total are the same. Says it all really, if you don’t need a human then don’t use one – you will create needless work for yourself and lose your readers confidence.

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks Mark, Not only is the tree confusing but is is wrong.

      PS Glad I checked my sums


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