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Delivering a Data Story: Controlling the Presentation Environment

Donna worked all week preparing for her big presentation to key enterprise stakeholder groups. She developed what she believes is going to be a compelling data story.  She had rehearsed standing up and using her laptop’s slide advance clicker, and she felt prepared and confident. As she entered the meeting room for her presentation, she noticed her manager and her department head in the audience. She was anxious.

She was prepared as she began her presentation. As she moved toward the computer in the room, she noticed the screen was password protected and she did not have the code. She knew that often the meeting center computers would have the login information posted, but as she looks for it, she realizes that it has been torn off and no one has replaced it.  It takes her 20 minutes to track down the meeting center liaison and get her presentation loaded.  Frazzled and short on time, she rushes through the slide deck, barely ending before the meeting adjourns with no time for questions.

A speaker stands at a podium in front of an out of focus audience; the computer screen in front of her is blank.

 Unfortunately, situations like this are not that uncommon.  Technical issues and physical distractions can undermine the best of presentations.  While you may not be able to control all unknowns, giving some consideration to the aspects that you can manage in the presentation environment will help you to deliver your most effective data driven presentation.


Data Presentation is one of the six Data Storytelling Essentials you should know.  The format in which your data story is shared can occur in a variety of ways, from an annual report to a single slide in an email to a social media post, but it is most common to find business leaders sharing a deck of PowerPoint slides in a live presentation.

This article explores one aspect of delivering a data story presentation, the management of the technology and tools in the presentation environment in which the story is shared. By adding these considerations to your preparation, you’ll ensure a smoother data presentation delivery.

Data Storytelling

Data storytelling resides at the Venn-diagram intersection sweet spot in the middle of data, visualization, and narrative. Each of these are essential to data storytelling. Done well, data storytelling distances itself from data showing and data sharing by weaving these elements together in such a way that convinces or compels an audience.

In addition to these three key essentials are three more elements essential to data storytelling. Data communication planning is essential to the storytelling process. Storytelling starts with shaping a precise plan based on the business objective and audience.

The delivery and method used to share your data story is also an essential component. How the data is ultimately shared affects the data storytelling process. Whether the data story is shared in a traditional slide deck attended by verbal remarks, or a one slide email are aspects to be considered in data story creation.  Data stories are still often presented in slides decks, frequently attended by a live speaker.

All of this occurs in the context of an organization’s data culture. From encouraging innovation and data literacy to fostering supportive communication behaviors, data culture is yet another data storytelling essential.


Managing the Presentation Environment When Delivering a Data Story

Presentations are usually given in a business, technical, or professional environment.  The audience is likely to be specialized and familiar with the topic.

While many speakers spend well focused time preparing the message, crafting compelling visualizations, and even rehearsing their remarks, planning often ends there with little to no consideration for the environment in which the presentation will be delivered.


Donna’s situation in the above scenario could have been avoided if she had checked the computer in the room in advance or met with the liaison ahead of time.  A few minutes of planning, checking technology and equipment, and arranging seating can prevent stressful speaking events.  Presenters can usually exercise some degree of control over the technical and physical aspects of the presentation environment. 

Presentation environment considerations include technology access, placement of equipment, where and how to stand, and the integrated use of the slides and related materials, among others.

Data Presentation Technology

Computers: Are you using your own laptop or is one being provided for you?

If possible, practice in the room and with the equipment that you will be using. If you are using a computer that is provided for you, be familiar with any log in protocols.  When using your own computer, bring your own connection cables.

Presentation slides: Do you have a retrievable backup copy of your presentation slides?

Make sure that you have a backup copy on a portable drive or shared cloud space for retrieval if needed.

A speaker holds a cordless mic while speaking to an audience.
Request a hands-free microphone to avoid being tied to a podium.

Microphone: Do you need a mic? 

If speaking to more than 50 people, you may want to consider using a microphone.  If possible, request a hands-free microphone to avoid being locked to a podium.  Alternatively, you can bring your own as a backup.

Lighting: Do you need to adjust the lighting of the room for any slides?

An over lit or overly dark room can play havoc with the projected visuals.  Too much natural light and your images may be hard to discern. Know the locations of blinds and light switches.  If possible, request a different time of day when the light is less challenging.

A speaker stands in front of a projected screen the light casting her shadow.
A tabletop projector casts shadow on the screen.

Projector: Is the projector ceiling mounted or on a table?

A tabletop projector is not only bright but also casts shadow on the screen of anything, including the speaker, that crosses in front of it. 


Room Arrangement

Entrance: Where is the room entrance/exit? If possible, arrange the seating so that the exit and entrance to the room are at the rear.  In this way, if people come and go, it will cause the least amount of distraction.

Seating: Where will people sit?

If you know about how many people are going to be present, try to manage the seating so that there are approximately as many seats as people. This way you won’t have your audience sitting in the back of the room.  Keeping your audience closer helps focus their attention where you want it. 

A man stands at a whiteboard with his back to the room.
Pause if you turn away from the audience to write.

Speaker: Where will you stand?

One major problem when delivering a slide presentation is that speakers often give their presentation to the screen and not to the audience.   This problem can be easily corrected if the speakers remember to always stay oriented toward the audience.   

Don’t speak unless you have eye contact with the audience.  If you must turn away to write something on a whiteboard or flipchart, pause briefly while you write. Resume when you have angled yourself within eye contact range again.


Visual Integration

Slides: Are your slides a help or a distraction?

Use your visualizations sparingly.  If possible, close down the slide by blacking out the presentation when there is a lengthy explanation and there is no need for the audience to watch the screen.  Reveal your slide when it is referred to and then close it down to keep audience attention on your message.

Consider also the presentation software's impact on the presentation itself. Mark Stoner, a communication scholar, has written an insightful article about the uses and abuses of PowerPoint.  

Handouts: Will you be distributing handouts?

Handouts can be a distraction, so use judiciously.  If using, be sure to have them easily within reach and in correct order so they can be handed out with minimal disruption. Or arrange for an assistant to hand them out. Alternatively, hand them out after the presentation rather than during it.

 Always Have a Backup Plan: What will you do if things breakdown when you need them?

While taking the time to control for the pieces of the presentation environment that you can will certainly minimize unexpected problems, it won't eliminate them 100%. Decide ahead of time what you will do to keep the presentation moving in spite of unexpected problems.

Returning to our scenario, the next time Donna takes extra steps in her preparation to control for the presentation environment. The next time, Donna arrives early to the meeting room, ensuring she has access to the computer and verifies that all necessary equipment is functioning properly. She also brings a backup copy of her presentation on a USB drive. While she plans to distribute her handouts at the end, she has included the main visualizations and can hand them out early if the slide show won't play.. With these precautions in place, Donna confidently delivers her presentation, smoothly navigating any potential obstacles and leaving ample time for questions and discussion, ultimately impressing her audience with her preparedness and professionalism.


Data stories are commonly delivered as a slide presentation, often with accompanying verbal remarks.  This article explores aspects of the physical and technical presentation environment that have the potential to cause distractions but can often be controlled for including, technology access, placement of equipment, where and how to stand, and the integrated use of the slides and related materials, among others.

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Roseanna Galindo is Principal at Periscope Business Process Analysis and a champion for data literacy, the human experience in healthcare, and leaders of volunteers everywhere.

Learn more about Roseanna and her blog, The Periscope Insighter, by reading the opening post, Venn The Time Is Right

Roseanna is available for training, keynotes, and executive coaching. Visit for more information or click on the button below to schedule a time to talk

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