Why do so many data-driven presentations stink?

They’re boring. They’re confusing. They’re stuck in the weeds. They fail to provide context.

They fail to tell a story.

So, if you want to learn how to give a great presentation using data, learn the keys to telling a riveting story. And for that, there’s no better teacher than Steven Spielberg. He directed classic movies like “Jaws,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Schindler’s List,” and many others.

To understand a basic story-telling pattern, look at Spielberg’s most famous movie, “Jaws.”

1. Establish the Stakes: The movie starts with a shark attack. The girl goes swimming and gets eaten. Why start this way? Spielberg establishes the stakes in the first scene. A shark is threatening the lives of swimmers and the economy of a beach community.
2. A Simple Pursuit: The characters pursue a solution to the threat. And Spielberg does it with a straightforward story. It’s a shark chase.
3. Twists and Turns: While the story is simple, there are plenty of unexpected moments that jar us awake.
4. Rapid Pacing: “Jaws” is two hours long. But it’s the shortest two hours you’ll ever experience.
5. Interesting Characters: We enjoy spending time with the key players, Brody, Quint, and Hooper.

Of course, this isn’t just Spielberg’s formula. It’s a common approach. Consider “Law and Order.” Nearly every episode starts with the stakes: someone finds a corpse in an alley, a dumpster, or a gas station restroom. From there, it’s a quick ride with several twists and turns to the conclusion when someone goes to jail. And, of course, we like the detectives.

So How Does This Apply to Data-driven Business Presentations?

You can use the same approach with a business presentation.

Consider a talk about rising Workers’ Compensation costs at your company’s warehouses. These presentations always involve lots of data. And they’re typically boring.

But let’s liven it up with the Spielberg formula.

Establish the Stakes: Start by establishing the “shark” or threat that concerns your listeners. Perhaps Workers’ Compensation costs are rising and threatening the bottom line. Perhaps rising costs indicate an unsafe work environment. Perhaps the insurance carrier has threatened to pull its coverage. Always establish the threat first.

“Thanks for having me today. Our Workers Compensation Costs are rising and our insurance carrier is threatening to pull our coverage. That’s an existential threat to our business. We need to do something to reduce costs or we could be without coverage.”

If that doesn’t get their attention, nothing will. No preliminaries. Just hit the audience with the key business issue. Show them the shark in the first scene.

The Simple Pursuit: Now you show how you’re going to attack the threat. Perhaps you identify the cause of the rising costs and detail a solution. This is the body of the presentation. It should be simple and logical. Keep your message to three points.

“I want to touch on three things

  • How our costs have risen
  • What’s driving the costs
  • How we can bring the costs in line.”

Then you elaborate on each point. It’s a simple story line. We’re going to chase the shark and kill it.

Twists and Turns: In business presentations, you can’t have sharks attacking a fishing boat. But you can have unpredictability. Leave lots of time for Q&A. And encourage Q&A at any time, not just at the end. Encourage the audience put you on the spot.

“Can you explain why we had so many accidents in February? That just makes no sense.”

Challenging questions make people sit up and take notice. And if you’re well prepared everyone will be impressed.

Rapid Pacing: Keep the presentation as short as possible. By moving fast and leaving lots of time for Q&A, you’ll keep the audience engaged. Try cutting your presentation in half. It will almost always be better.

Interesting Characters: This goes to delivery style. You need to connect with your listeners personally and speak with the passion that makes people listen.

As far as I know, Steven Spielberg has never given a presentation on Workers’ Compensation costs. But if you want to make your data-heavy presentations interesting, you should consider following his approach.