I recently watched data kill a sales pitch. The presenter was working his way through a deck, reviewing slide after slide filled with charts and graphs. He was using the data to support a pre-ordained conclusion whose inevitable arrival couldn’t come soon enough. Then he brought up the next chart, and the potential client asked a question, “How did you get that result?” And the presentation came to a screeching halt. What followed was a long discussion about methodology, sample sizes, data sets, time frames, and whether other variables were considered. The flow was lost, smartphones came out, sidebar conversations began. And not surprisingly, no sale happened. The data had overwhelmed the presentation, and killed a deal.
In this age of Big Data, we have been encouraged to believe it’s a case of the more the merrier. Data has become the headline – the juicy nugget we can’t wait to reveal that will demonstrate our brilliance and win the day. It will solve any problem, answer any question. But the reality is quite the opposite. With data, a little goes a long, long, way. Here are three things to keep in mind as you incorporate data into your next presentation. especially if it’s a sales pitch.
You Say Data, I Say Data
A recent study in the Journal Nature gave 30 separate teams of scientists the exact same set of data to analyze to help them answer the question, “Do dark skinned soccer players get red cards more frequently than light skinned players?” When the results came back, they ranged from “no more likely to receive a red card” to “4 times more likely to receive a red card.” 30 different teams of scientists, 30 different results. Why? For starters, each team had its own methodology. Each team chose which variables to include, and how much importance to give the variables. So everyone looked at the same information and drew different conclusions. In our infatuation with data, we have forgotten the old saw, “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.” You can make data say just about whatever you want. Smart people can see through data, or can at least cast doubt on your conclusions to stall or delay the acceptance of your point. (See: Big Tobacco.) If 30 sets of scientists can’t get the same answer from the exact same set of data, why do you think your audience will draw the same conclusion as you do from your data? If you use data, you better be prepared to field challenges to your interpretation. But be careful about getting dragged into an argument. You’ll just come off as overly confrontational if you keep pressing the point.
Don’t Use Five Charts When You Can Use One
Given the Red Card findings above, this should seem obvious. And common sense from a presenting standpoint. But we love our charts, and the infinite slicing and dicing we can do with our data. We have SO MANY fun facts at our fingertips, we just can’t help but sharing every last one of them! Sadly, not everyone is as enthralled with your crosstabs as you are. And every time you trot out the same chart, with a slightly different twist, or subset of data, it gives the audience another chance to question your assumptions and methodology. After seeing the same thing over and over, someone’s bound to ask that dreaded methodology question out of sheer boredom, if nothing else. One chart to get across the point is all you need. Have other charts and supporting data at the ready in your presentation appendix to expand on a point if asked, but only if asked.
Data Is Not The Story
Probably the most important takeaway about data is that it isn’t the story you’re trying to tell, in and of itself. Somehow, we’ve been led to believe that if we just show a bunch of charts and numbers, the audience will deduce and extract the conclusion you want them to. Wrong. To close the deal, get the green light or change someone’s thinking, you need to craft a convincing story, based on an understanding of the audience you’re trying to persuade – what they believe, what they understand, and what they value. If you can speak directly to their values, and talk to them about what’s important to them, data may not even be necessary. More often than not, data can help make your case. But data is awful as the star of your show. Data is the Robin to your story’s Batman. The Michelle Williams to Story’s Beyonce. Helpful in support. Not so interesting on its own. Start with crafting your story, then let data sing backup.
Maybe it’s because there is just so much data available, we all feel like we have to put it to use somehow. Maybe we lack confidence in our own ability to persuade, or maybe we’ve been trained to distrust anything that isn’t in a table or chart. But the truth is sales and marketing groups are leaning way too heavily on data to do our work for us. We need to be more selective about how we use data, or we just might get tossed from our next presentation.