Present complex data to client executives

By John Seasholtz, Seasholtz Consulting

Consultant engagements often attempt to solve complex business problems. In the course of these meetings and projects, you form hypotheses and support or refute them through research and analysis. During this research and analysis phase, you inevitably generate an immense amount of data and information. Your challenge is removing the complexity from the data in order to clearly explain and present it to clients, while preserving the data's critical findings.

Some types of complex data presented to clients might include:

  • Customer segmentation information
  • Industry and competitive trends
  • Process reengineering recommendations
  • Financial analysis and modeling results
  • Technical project requirements

Remember your executive audience

Although the data generated in consulting projects is important, presenting too much of it and with complicated visuals can be potentially confusing to executives for the following reasons:

  • Executives have limited time and your presentations might not be one of their priorities. With multiple divisions or companies to manage, their schedules are typically full. Respect their time by being clear and direct with your findings.
  • Executives involved in consulting presentations cover different departments and so might have limited knowledge of some of the issues addressed. Make sure you present information in a concise format understandable to everyone, not just those with extensive knowledge of the project.
  • Executives have different information needs so you need to learn what they are and gear your presentation to them. For example, some prefer a presentation that's analytical (just the facts), while others prefer a presentation that's progress-oriented (just the findings, not the steps that got you there).
  • Executives like “sound bites” that they can use to easily communicate new ideas to peers and subordinates. Help them sell internally and implement solutions by providing them with clear and simple summaries of your results.


The following guidelines can help you present complex concepts to executives:

Discover executive hot buttons

Before developing the presentation, learn your audience. It's especially important to tie data to the corporate strategy. It can help if you:

  • Develop a thorough understanding of the organizational strategy including any key strategic initiatives (for example, increase gross margins by 5%).
  • Understand the key performance metrics such as return on investment (ROI) of the strategy, and tie your data to the support of these metrics. Executives want to see that the data generated support the strategy.
  • Do some advance intelligence gathering by running some data by key audience members before the presentation to gauge their perceptions and understanding.

Boil down information

This is what consultants sometimes refer to as “chunking up” so that a story can be told from a seemingly overwhelming jumble of data. Here are some suggestions to help you boil down complex information:

  • Group the data into logical categories that appear to have the same general attributes. For instance, in reviewing customer data, you can identify groups or segments of customers with similar buying behavior or demographic characteristics.
  • Look for trends in the data. Does it seem to move in one direction, or is it random? Also, look for trends that executives can use to understand how the data might affect the company's future performance.
  • Understand the relationships between data and if it's highly correlated, (for instance, an increase in consumer discretionary income and product sales) be sure to note the interdependence.
  • Prioritize and develop lists of data organized by key attributes from most important to least important. When presenting it, focus on the highest priority elements that support your hypotheses.

Keep it simple

Consultants should be sure to speak to the lowest common denominator in the audience and to clearly articulate how the data supports the overall recommendations. This can be accomplished if you:

  • Keep your taglines short and to the point as they appear at the top of the presentation slides. These taglines should briefly describe your message and the corresponding visual. They needn't be full sentences.
  • Think in terms of “leave behinds” so that if an executive hands off the presentation to another executive, the next executive would be able to understand it.
  • Make sure to speak in the company language because some executives are familiar with certain performance metrics, and you should describe the impact of your information in these terms.
  • Be consistent and repeat key messages and supporting data throughout the presentation. Also use a consistent navigational structure to keep executives interested throughout your presentation.
  • Limit the amount of consultant buzzwords that you use in a presentation. Consultants tend to use terms in presentations that might be understood only in the consulting world. (Especially refrain from turning nouns into verbs.)

Choose the right visuals

The last thing you want to do when presenting complex information is to use confusing or distracting visuals. Choosing the most effective visuals can be a challenging exercise, but it's critical because many people think visually. Some consultants are tempted to use fancy charts that they can understand but that frustrate the executive audience. The following guidelines can help you choose the most effective ways to express data in charts and graphs:

  • Highlight key data by applying bold text, enlarging, underlining, or circling key points that you want to draw the audience’s attention to. This is particularly important if you're showing tables or graphs that contain a lot of numbers. Highlight important graph data by circling some lines or bars or bolding their label text. Be careful not to draw attention to too many items, however, or you might dilute or lose your intended emphasis.
  • Remember how people read and place the most important information accordingly – left to right and top to bottom. For comparison charts, put the least important bars on the right of a vertical graph or the bottom of a horizontal graph.
  • Choose charts and graphs that support your messages and not the other way around. Consultants commonly use pie charts, bar charts, line charts, dot charts, and tables to present complex data. Be sure to label the axes of whatever charts you use.
  • Don’t use too much flash such as bright colors or bold images. Executives generally want the facts presented clearly and compellingly. Simple black and white is still best, and it also makes the copying process easier for those leave-behinds.
  • Run your charts and graphs by a few client personnel who aren't part of the project team to see if they can understand what you're saying (of course, be careful not to disclose confidential information).

Source the data

You can add credibility to your presentation by providing additional information on the assumptions that you used to generate the data, as well as summary output from the research and models. After the presentation, some executives might want to play with the numbers you presented. Providing assumptions on key variables, for example, allows them to make their own calculations at a later time. Things to consider about sourcing data include:

  • Provide a brief overview of your assumptions prior to presenting the data (assuming that you've manipulated the data somehow through financial modeling or calculations).
  • Use footnotes for all charts and graphs that present data, indicating the source of data, the date it was collected, the project name, and the data owner (if it's someone within the client organization).
  • Use appendices with your handouts to provide summaries of detailed spreadsheets, tables, and more, for those executives who might want to examine the numbers. Appendices can also help support an answer to a difficult question during your presentation.

Keep it clear

You can break down complex data and make it easier to communicate to client executives by categorizing, prioritizing, and tying the boiled-down details to your project hypotheses and the company strategy. Although the initial data can be daunting, simple presentation visuals, repetition of key messages, and supporting data can help convey your information effectively and permanently.

About the author    John Seasholtz is the founder and principal consultant of Seasholtz Consulting, Inc., in Seattle. Seasholtz Consulting provides strategic and operational planning services to clients in the consumer products, high-tech, financial services, and retail industries.

Applies to:
PowerPoint 2003