Presenting Quantitative Information Well—Lessons from Playwrights

Quantitative information must be communicated accurately and clearly in order to allow the audience to understand its significance and then act appropriately. Clear information leads to better decisions, actions, and results. Conversely, misunderstood information often results in an unsuccessful project. However, in many presentations, more effort is required to communicate the content effectively.

Quantitative information–sales and marketing results, financial reports, survey data, and experimental results–are factual, but it is also open to interpretation and analysis. This article focuses on methods to sharpen the presentation and interpretation of the information. An earlier article dealt with improving the performance of the individual (Another Lousy Presentation at Work).

The principles of dramatic playwriting are a different place to look for guidance. Playwrights have similar concerns to a business speaker. In a dramatic play, there is a fixed amount to time to captivate the audience and make the points of the drama. Every dialog and action must move the play forward. If the play is successful, energy is generated. However, if the characters of play are poorly conceived, not even the most talented actors can rescue it.

The principles that dramatic writers use to shape a play can also be adapted to help guide the presentation of the quantitative information. Examples include:

Character Definition




Here are some comparisons for the theater and information presentations:

Character Definition

The playwright introduces the main characters early and then works with the characters to add dimensions and interest.

Information is the main character for the presentation. It must be put on a solid foundation, so that the audience can use the information during the presentation.

Just as with the characters in the play, it is important that the information be made readily available at the outset. The presenter must clearly show the quantitative information and then assist the audience in coming to understand what the information means. Too often, the presenter reveals the information itself slowly. The talk then deteriorates into a guessing game.

—Give the information and analysis tools early.


Pacing—In a play, the plot has to proceed at a pace that is reasonable for the audience. A slow development leads to boredom, mental lethargy, and the loss of energy.

Pacing is also important for information transfer. For the presentation, the information should be transmitted at the customary rate that brain is used to receiving it. Matching rates allows the content to be internalized more effectively.

As an example, consider the difference between a printed page (100 characters per sq. inch) and a power point slide (5 characters/square inch). Relying on Power Point slides to transmit quantitative information is just too slow to hold the audience’s attention. One sheet of paper can replace 10-50 slides of information.

Quantitative information is best presented as individual handouts.

Formatting—Viewing a theater set, the eye takes both in the entire stage and then moves back and forth to the individual details. This movement helps to establish a context for the details to become significant.

In the case of understanding information, the eye-mind combination works effectively when all of the information data can be viewed the same time. The eye can freely travel among the details. There is benefit to formatting the content in an information rich display that can be viewed on only a page or two.

The information format must be made efficient and stripped of decoration that does not advance the understanding.

For example, when designing the handout, require that each of drop of ink contribute to the information. In this approach, many of the superfluous decorations that distract the audience disappear.

—Work from a handout designed with an information rich format.

Engage the Audience

A great play engages the audience by inviting them to compare their impressions with the author’s perspective and draw their own conclusions. This process generates the energy of the performance.

For quantitative information, reveal your view of the relationships to the audience. The relationships are revealed by methods such as comparing, contrasting, testing cause and effect, and challenging your own conclusions. The audience can mentally work and play with the relationships as they are discussed. This process leads to tested, sound conclusions. Energy will be generated, just as in a fine play.

—Reveal and test the relationships with the audience

In summary, the focus is on the content—presenting it early, pacing, formatting, and engaging the audience. When the information is in good shape for presentation, you are free to let your own style shine through, just as the actor with fine material.


(A useful reference for quantitative information displays is Edward Tufte)


One Response to Presenting Quantitative Information Well—Lessons from Playwrights

  1. […] article dealt with performance of the individual.  A related post Presenting Quantitative Information Well–Lessons from Playwrights focuses on the methods to sharpen the presentationn of the […]

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