Communicating information and data through story-telling

Communicating information and data to other people – transferring the idea in your brain to those you are speaking with – is done most effectively by story-telling.

This is the key point I took away from an event on ‘Communicating Effectively’ by Intelligence East Midlands held in Nottingham last week.

I spent an informative day learning from Warren Pearce and Nicola Underdown, and other participants at the event, on how to practically improve communication of ideas and data.

Specifically, we looked at better ways to present information, ideas and data in presentation slides structured on the golden thread:

  • Tell a story
  • Awareness of cognitive load
  • One big thing you want the audience to remember

While the focus was on designing presentation slides, much of the learning was relevant to communicating ideas through narrative and data in other content types.

PowerPoint by death through endless bullet lists read out in a monotone voice, complex charts illegible to people sat beyond the first row, cramming slides with every idea you have — all these familiar scenarios went in the bin and we started from scratch.

A quality benchmark was set early on in the day with a discussion around this talk by Hans Rosling given to TEDIndia.

Watch the video on

Hans discusses social and economic development since 1858 using visualised data in Gapminder to tell a compelling story of how (and when) he thinks India and China will outstrip the US as the world’s dominant economic forces.

Using a clear narrative, one big idea and interesting visual slides – with a fair bit of personality, he’s an effective public speaker with his own style – Hans delivers a compelling message.

The slides, structure, physical on-stage props such as a wallet and pointer, and his words all play a part in taking the audience through a story to a specific conclusion. Hans wants to persuade the audience of his belief that India and China will outstrip the US as the world’s dominant economic forces, predicting the date this will happen.

Clearly, we’re not all as experienced at presenting as Hans, but the example video kickstarted participants at the Communicating Effectively event into new ways of approaching a presentation.

Also, communicating trends in social and economic development with supporting statistics is a fair proxy for Regional Observatories’ work. There’s a lot Observatories can learn from these techniques.

I’m not going to round up the rest of the day in this post, as there are lots of resources from the event already available at

However, I’ll highlight the presentation design crib sheet of 10 facts to remember, as I think it’s very useful:

  1. Go analogue: pen, pad, post-its or pencil, get planning with your PC *off*.
  2. Who’s your audience?
  3. What one BIG THING do you want them to take away?
  4. Use stories, not abstracts. An example of your work is much more memorable than generalities.
  5. Keep it brief.
  6. Keep it simple. One idea per slide = good.
  7. Minimal text on a slide. If they’re reading, they’re not listening.
  8. Use large (30pt+), Serif (Tahoma, Verdana, etc.) font so easy to read. Try not use to Arial, it’s over-familiar and will blunt audience’s interest.
  9. Images: fill the screen with good quality, relevant pics to support your points.
  10. Takeaway *document* – any details you can’t fit into a broad-brush presentation can go in here. (No slide print-outs!)

If you’re interested in learning more about this area, do have a look at the resources shared on

Image credit: photo by Robert Burdock

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting this, Gavin – you’ve done a better job of summarising than I could have managed!

    Just to add that the Resource Base will be kept regularly updated with all the best presentation stuff from around the web (and probably a couple of clunkers too). You can keep updated by RSS or by email alert to any new resources we post there…

    Happy Xmas to all in the West Midlands!

  2. This is a great write up of the day. I found it really useful too. And I’ll certainly be accessing the resources.



  3. Hi Gavin,

    Great post and a very nice way to plan out your data stories, will keep this in mind.

    Happy Christmas to all the blog contributors here.

    InstantAtlas Marketing Manager

  4. Thanks for the kind comments! Glad the writeup is useful.

    I certainly got a lot from the training day. The resources blog at is handy too for keeping in touch post-event.

    Merry Christmas to you all too.

  5. […] Intelligence team) and the IEM Effective Communication course which I designed with Nicola and was enthusiastically received when we ran it in […]

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