One of the most-asked questions I get when I teach seminars is: “What do I do with my data tables?” Tables and/or spreadsheets are great ways to present data in an organized manner. We’re already familiar with typical conventions for tables and spreadsheets from using them or encountering them in the literature.
In presentations, the temptation is to put the data tables on slides and display them to the audience. We already know that too much text on a slide can interfere with efficient processing of information (see the “Text is for Take-Away” section of this post). Large data tables (text or numbers) can create the same kind of interference.
Additionally, we need time to understand a table’s layout and to determine how to “use” it to locate specific data points. It is difficult for your audience to do this if the table is only displayed for 30 seconds or so. To allow your audience to elaborate on the data presented in a table, give it to them as a handout.
In previous posts I’ve recommended giving handouts out at the end of a presentation and normally that is what I do. The exception is when I need to walk the audience through some detailed data. At that point in the presentation, I darken the screen (use the B key when in slide show mode (both PowerPoint and Keynote) to black out the screen; press B again to bring back your slide), distribute the handout, then walk them through the data.
Since the screen is blacked out, they can focus on the handout in front of them (visual information) and listen to my narrative of the data (auditory information). This approach is consistent with the nature of working memory (limited capacity and two-channels for processing information). When I’m ready to resume my slide show, I press the B key to bring back the image and move on.
Bottom line: data tables belong in a handout and not displayed on a slide. Distribute handouts at the appropriate point during your presentation, walk the audience through the data, then resume your slide show.
**Since many rules are “made to be broken,” in my next post I’ll describe an example of a presentation that did incorporate a table displayed on a slide – and it worked perfectly for the audience and the situation! Stay tuned!