Breaking the “Rules” of Displaying Tables

In my previous post I gave you some general rules of thumb for tables and spreadsheets, especially those with lots of rows and columns.  In general, put those large tables and spreadsheets into paper handouts that you give to the audience either at the appropriate point in your presentation, or at the end. Every once in a while, though, there are situations when presenting data in table format on a slide can actually work, and work well. 

A few weeks ago, my colleagues and I assembled for a workshop on improving faculty-librarian collaboration.  This workshop was the culmination of extensive data collection and analysis, including an environmental scan, a librarian survey, and focus groups with students and faculty.  My colleague was faced with the same dilemma that many of you face: how do I show and explain this data to my audience?

To solve her problem, she “broke” the rule on tables in slides, and by using only one slide, my colleague walked us through all of the data that their task force had collected in an efficient and thought-provoking thirty-minute discussion.  Below is the slide she used (click for a larger image):

(c) Irene Ke, Used With Permission

Page after page of survey results and focus group data are neatly and graphically summarized in the table above.  Even without the benefit of my colleague’s spoken words, just by looking at the table you can easily see that while we (as librarians) think blogs and wikis are great communication tools, students don’t like them and faculty don’t even know what they are.  Another conclusion you might draw is that faculty like email messages from the library but students don’t.*

Now, don’t be discouraged and think to yourself: “I could never do that,”  because you can – it just might take some practice.  Below is the original slide my colleague created (click for a larger image):

(c) Irene Ke, Used With Permission

Compare this image with the one above and notice the evolution of the slide.  She started out with text snippets taken from the focus group data, then set about to transform those into simple graphics (see above). Could you do the same with your own survey or focus-group data?  Sure!

Taking things a bit further, I “tweaked” the final slide and came up with this (click for a larger image):

(c) Irene Ke and Lee Andrew Hilyer, Used With Permission

Some of the changes I made include:

  1. Added some shading to the first column to separate it from the others.
  2. Centered the images in each cell of the table (and even then, PowerPoint does wonky things to table cells).
  3. Adjusted some of the graphics (size, whitespace within the cell, etc.)
  4. Added a sentence headline to improve overall comprehension (i.e., “What’s the point of this slide?)

So the next time you have a presentation that involves data, consider this method and see if it might work for you – it certainly did for my colleague!

Peace out,


*The surveys and focus groups were conducted at the University of Houston Libraries and thus the results can only be generalized (with caution) to the UH community and not university faculty or students in general.

**Thanks to my colleague, Irene Ke, for sharing her slides with me (and with you)!



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