How to Present Numbers: Big, Bold, and Beautiful
In the time it takes you to read this opening sentence, millions of presentations have begun in board rooms, conference rooms and coffee shops around the world. And while I don't have an exact figure, we can assume these presentations feature a goodly share of numbers—lots of numbers. As vital symbols for storytelling, numbers quantify progress and failure. They offer a sense of scope and scale. They add, subtract, multiply and divide our understanding of a situation. Unfortunately, a vast percentage of these numbers are unreadable, under-utilized and under-valued in presentations.
"You probably can't read this in the back row."
We've all been in the back row for these presentations. Heck, even the folks in the front row are squinting as the speaker clicks through spreadsheets and screen shots with tiny numbers. How do we stop the madness? How do we give numbers their due? It's simple, really. When building presentations, we need to be mindful of the three "Bs" of presenting numbers: make them Big, Bold and Beautiful.
Wizards are one of the biggest problems in presentations today. Not the white-bearded fellows who take you on quests for dragon's gold. I’m talking about the step-by-step, "hand-holding" assistants in programs like Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint. Wizards promise "beautiful charts and graphs" in minutes—no design experience necessary—just turn the crank and Voila! Unfortunately, most people don't look back after they've clicked "Create Chart.” The result is usually a pie or bar chart with a Day-Glo palette and tiny numbers in Arial Bold. Few presenters stop to consider the readability of these "insta-charts" for their audience—especially the poor folks in the back row who are destined to receive an apology from the speaker for the “eye-chart.”
If you're using a wizard, take another moment to review and reflect on the readability of the chart or graph. Step back eight feet from your monitor. Can you read it? Think about your audience. Can they read it? Guess what? You're more powerful than a wizard. You can override their wizarding results. Double-click the numbers and double their size from 12 point to 24 point. Change the colors—double-click and darken pie slices for greater contrast. It only takes a few minutes and a few extra steps to ensure your audience gets the true impact of the numbers.
A no-brainer, you say? Just click the "B" on the formatting toolbar and "BAM!" your numbers are bold. Yes, formatting numbers with bold helps readability; however, let’s consider another definition of boldness. I'm talking about Mick Jagger boldness. As the front man of one of the biggest arena acts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Jagger uses his voice and body language to entertain his fans—even in the upper deck—with no apologies. So why are so many presenters hiding their numbers in text-heavy bullets? Let your numbers stand out. Give them the spotlight. Give them the microphone. Let them rock the audience.
What’s bolder than a giant set of digits in the middle of a slide? BAM! Now, that's bold! A celebratory number shouting: we met our goal. A big, bad number representing an obstacle to overcome. A giant target number you want to burn into the memories of your team.
As you review your slides, consider the importance of each number. Find opportunities for boldness. Look for the numbers deserving the spotlight.
Are you ready for some brain science? When the human brain detects a presentation with the fonts Arial or Calibri, the visual cortex flips an internal switch, sending the brain into a mild state of catatonia. Okay, I made that up. There is, however, some truth to the stimulating effect of beauty on the human brain. What does this all mean for our numeric heroes? There is a big wide world of typography to explore and plenty of free fonts to download and try. Check out www.fontsquirrel.com for starters. Don’t stick with the default fonts. Go forth and find a font to enhance the readability and aesthetics of your charts, graphs and tables.
Wait! Hold on—not so fast. Here are some parting words of advice on this subject:
Avoid cursive or script fonts. Yes, they are beautiful, but, most often, they are not appropriate for displaying numbers.
Take a look at fonts like Bebas Neue and Passion One (both available on Font Squirrel).
Don’t beautify fonts with drop shadows, 3D effects or anything listed under a menu called “Type Effects.”
Look around. Take note of the use of typography in the world around you. I’ve found inspiration in breakfast cereal boxes, ESPN motion graphics, infographics and billboards. Pinterest is a great resource for ideas.
If you want to learn more about designing big, bold and beautiful slides, I invite you to join me for an upcoming workshop on October 10th at the Wellstone Center in St. Paul. In Advance Your Slides, I will be teaching attendees the hard way to develop presentations—it’s also a fun way. This full day class will break down and explore every facet of truly effective presentations. If you live in the Greater Twin Cities area, please join me. I’m already working on my presentation—hope to see you there.