6 Golden rules of presenting numbers

If you’re put in charge of presenting a lot of numerical data to a group then what can you do to make sure people see what you need them to see?

The first in this series is a list of golden rules to abide by to make your presentations stand out.

There will be more editions giving you further specific advice to help you with presentation coming soon.

1 Never present a number that doesn’t have a lever attached-

Seriously what’s the point? It may give you or your audience a sense of comfort to know there are loads of numbers floating around the organisation but if you can’t do anything with them then they are just so much noise.

2 Less is more – 

Don’t confuse quantity with quality. Focus on presenting just a few key metrics. The things that really drive the business instead of putting a number to every aspect of the firm and then printing them on a tree.

3 Space on the page should stay just that –

Lots of blank white space focuses the eye on the number you want people to see. Don’t use a lot of interesting and funky graphics, lines, colours or shading. Leave it clean and crisp and to the point.

4 Just because you can doesn’t mean you should –

No seriously, we know you’re good at excel, that’s why you’re where you are but just because excel 2013 can do sparklines doesn’t mean every sheet should have them. Steer away from the fancy stuff and go for understanding rather than pretty graphics. Whilst we’re about it backgrounds are an absolute no-no.

5 Always add context-

Numbers without context are just so much hamster bedding. The skill of a high level manager is not to produce accurate numbers (we kind of assume you’ll do that anyway) but it’s the richness of interpretation that adds real value to an organisation. Add (short) commentaries of why readers should care that Gross Profit is down and you’re getting there.

6 Always ask ‘Why?’-

Whenever you’re adding a feature, a metric or a format to a page ask yourself why. Does it add anything? If someone asks you to add in another figure to an already full sheet then ask them why. What specific insight is it that they hope to gain?

Now it may be that you’re in a regulated industry and you have to report in a specific way with specific information. In which case you should ignore all of the above because you’re not allowed to rewrite the governing body’s report structure. but for other internal reports you should use the above rules and go for clean, insightful pages that cut to the chase and you’ll be surprised how much more fruitful the discussions will be.


The more I practice

I heard a story once…


Arnold Palmer* was playing in a major when he hit a drive into a bunker on the edge of the green. He strolled up, selected a sand wedge, chipped the ball out of the bunker onto the green and it rolled neatly into the hole. Behind him a spectator muttered something about him being lucky. Palmer turned to the unfortunate chap and said ‘you know what, the more I practice, the luckier I get’.

It’s interesting because recently I’ve been getting that feeling. Not about golf (I’m a lousy player) but about work.

The more effort I put in, the more background reading I do, the more I talk to people and the more training, testing and modelling I do, the better things go.

Sometimes I can see people giving me the old ‘why is he asking that question? Of course we’ve thought of it.’ But the truth is that you can never assume that people have thought the same way you do and checked what you would have.

In the future I’ll be writing some of my findings from the world of project management. It’d be cool to think that maybe somewhere in the world, someone’s project went a little bit smoother because of a lesson I learnt on a tiny project in a little company somewhere in Dorset.


* Of course I’ve heard this story recounted many times since. Often it’s a different golfer involved and the wording is slightly different. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. Funnily enough this doesn’t seem to matter because the point is the same. Practice, preparation and effort all make a difference.