Quick win: 3 PowerPoint Essentials for any (Analytics) Consultant or Analyst

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I must confess that I have a guilty pleasure: I truly enjoy building PowerPoint slide decks…

It’s likely that Building PowerPoint slide decks is something that most of us did either back in college or as a professional, in a typical office job. It’s one of today’s most frequently used, and yet, most hated media. In fact, for many, ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is a common phrase (FYI: it is actually lethal). As a reader of this article, you probably had a similar experience with PowerPoint in the past.

Last month, I had the honor of taking my colleagues through a crash course on PowerPoint. I quickly briefed them on most of the basic and some of the advanced functions. To me, PowerPoint is like a magic box. Like any other Office product, it contains hundreds, maybe even thousands of functions and options, most of which most of us have never used, or are not even aware of. Yet, this is in fact where the hidden advantage of the tool lies.

I see PowerPoint as a powerful instrument to turn regular information and data into powerful visual content. You don’t have to be a professional marketeer or visual designer using expensive design or publishing software to create compelling presentations and publications. Instead, the more you get accustomed to PowerPoint, the more you can take advantage of it.

In this article, I would like to share some practical tips on how to improve your visual presentations using PowerPoint. In doing so, I would like to mention that I am by no means connected to or working for Microsoft. Rather, the articles reflects my honest opinion on the software, as well as my intention to educate you on how to best make use of not-too-complicated, but very pragmatic and useful software. 

 

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Here are my 3 PowerPoint essentials for any consultants or analysts (both within or outside the analytics field) who use PowerPoint for their work, which I will then elaborate on individually:

  1. Set up a clear storyline 
  2. Use appealing illustrations
  3. Make better-looking graphs and charts
which essentials to improve in your presentation - storyline, illustrations, graphs

Figure 1. 3 PowerPoint essentials to improve your presentation, publication or visualization.

Let’s now go through each step individually.

Essential 1. Set up a clear storyline

As a professional, it is important to start with the ‘why’. That is: what is the purpose of this presentation? Who is the audience? What is the central message that I want to convey? And so on.

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Unfortunately, many of us do not have a clear message to convey, so we end up sending an overkill of unorganized information to our audiences. Hence, the phrase ‘Death by PowerPoint’

Any author or designer should have a clear and specific idea of what message they want to send. A good publication or visualization has a clear storyline, it has a clearly-defined beginning, core message, and ending, as well as supporting empirical evidence.

But how can you effectively do this? There is much we can learn from the field of storytelling to appropriately structure a compelling storyline. For example, a very common way of structuring your story comes from the field of marketing and consists of using the AIDA-model

AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. In other words, you should begin with a descriptive introduction to catch your listener’s attention. Then, you should stir your listener’s interest by using specific catchphrases and loops. Then, as you convey your central message to the reader, make sure you can support your claims with empirical proof. Last but not least, you should finish with a clear conclusion and ideally, a strong call to action.

In analytics, we often present to drive a point home. Oftentimes, this is an analytics finding that we need to communicate to the business.

A classical approach that can aid you to build a compelling storyline and keep your listener engaged is that of including a few ‘additional’ elements into your story. For example, work with a relatable protagonist (e.g. a manager or HR business partner). Then, present the audience the protagonist’s ‘status quo’. This is followed by the introduction of an element that challenges the status quo: a potential threat.

Subsequently, show your audience how the latter impacts your protagonist. Once you’ve exposed them to the ‘problem’, it’s time to introduce a clear and tangible solution that restores the initial equilibrium, one or more obstacles or conflicts, a solution or a plan, and – last but not least – a clear result.
Okay, now that we have set up the and structure for our story, we have to shape our messages and supporting evidence into appealing visuals.

Essential 2. Use appealing illustrations

The saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies very well to PowerPoint. 

Yet, before choosing an image for your story, I suggest you first think about the key message you want to convey. Here, it’s helpful to try to summarize your story in one word – or as succinctly as you possibly can. This will make it significantly easier for you to find the most adequate picture to paint your story as representatively and as accurately as you possibly can.

Try to avoid using stock photos, as they might give your audience the impression that you were too lazy to look for a more original alternative.

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Similarly, try to avoid low-resolution images. They can truly ruin a great presentation. This shouldn’t be too hard, since nowadays you can find a huge high-resolution and free to use photo repositories online. They are easy to use and often will boost your presentation immediately. Examples are Pexels, Unsplash, and Pixabay.

Yet, the pictures alone are not sufficient. To deliver your message in a more powerful and attractive way, you can also use infographics, as they are very powerful means of conveying relevant information in a compact, engaging, and visually appealing way. Here’s the good news, though: PowerPoint now has its own. build-in, continuously expanding icon library. You can easily search and pick your favorite icon to use in your slide deck (Go to tab Insert > Icons).

But what if you cannot find a good option or a suitable icon? Don’t worry. Again, the Internet is full of (free) alternative resources. One of my favorite icon libraries is Flaticon. Here you can browse through dozens of icons, black-white or multicolor. You can even edit the colors of an icon yourself. Very handy! This way you can create your own, customized icons that suit, for instance, the corporate brand.

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Essential 3. Make better-looking graphs and charts

Since we are working with a lot of data and information, it is important to show and present them clearly and comprehensively, right? In other words, the way graphs and charts are visualized should help the audience understand the data (and therefore the key messages) more effectively.  One way to do this is by playing with colors.

The use of color in charts is quite tricky. Some suggest it is better to use the same color to present similar kinds of data or variables. On the other hand, it is tempting to use a wider variety of colors in a chart or graph so that you can better distinguish the differences between categories. A somewhat in-between solution is to use graduating shades of one color (or similar colors). This will enhance the readability of the chart and will allow the audience to focus more on the data instead of the visual. Another rule of thumb would be to ask yourself: do the colors improve the clarity of the chart, or do they make it more fuzzy and difficult to interpret? This should ultimately help you decide which alternative to choose.

chart options preferences - clarity and readability

Figure 2. Which chart option do you prefer in terms of clarity and readability?

Above all, the chart or graph needs to convey a clear message. If you know the key message or conclusion that you want to convey, you can adjust your color use accordingly. 

Let’s assume your data contains multiple age groups with multiple variables for these groups. But you would like to highlight the differences between two specific major age groups. In this case, it would be most clear to visualize the differences by using 1 simple color for each age group, rather than different colors for all the characteristics as this would clutter your graph and reduce its readability. How do you put the above’s tips into PowerPoint practice? 

If you want to use the built-in color scheme in PowerPoint, but you are looking for some variation (such as graduating colors), you can use the change chart colors function instead (go to Chart Tools > Design menu > Change Colors). To customize your charts and graphs, it helps to use your own colors (instead of using the predefined Office color palette). Several features in PowerPoint can help to optimally use this function: e.g. the eyedropper function to match contextual colors (under (Shape) Format > (Shape) Fill), or adjust the color scheme (go to tab Design > arrow under Variants > Colors > Customize Colors).

Building powerful content and visuals

In conclusion, anyone can use PowerPoint to create truly compelling and effective presentations. PowerPoint is very useful, even if you are a more advanced analytics practitioner. Over the past years, I have discovered the ‘hidden’ power of PowerPoint to support my data analysis and especially data reporting and visualization activities. I am convinced that all professionals – within or outside the analytics community – can benefit from using PowerPoint to its fullest by turning data into bite-sized information through better and appealing visuals. In the end, by building more powerful content and visuals, we can enhance our communication, improve mutual understanding, and hopefully improve organizational performance.

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