I often hear about leaders asking staff members to put a spreadsheet on a slide. I see this in the work I do reviewing slides from participants before my customized corporate workshops. These huge tables of numbers are overwhelming. In my workshops I prepare makeovers of slides and show the participants how the key message of the spreadsheet could be communicated as a visual instead. It is not uncommon that the participant who prepared the slide says that the visual is clearer, but they have to put the whole spreadsheet on the slide because the boss requires it.
The first question you should ask when your boss requests the full spreadsheet on the slide is why they want to see the full spreadsheet. They are clearly looking for something, and it will save you a lot of time if you knew what they were looking for. If they really only need to see the bottom line, just show them a clean visual or small table with the key figures. This is almost never the case unfortunately, so why else might they want to see so many numbers.
There are two reasons I often hear from workshop participants as to why the boss asks for the whole spreadsheet on the slide. The first common reason is that the boss says that the presentation is being used as part of the project documentation, so all the details need to be there. The second reason is that the boss wants all the details to be there in case someone asks a question.
By putting the whole spreadsheet on the slide, you actually invite the audience to derail your presentation. Here’s what happens. Audience members stop listening to you and start examining all the numbers. They aren’t hearing your explanation and context, so they may not interpret the numbers correctly. The bigger issue is that they start hunting for questions to ask. Often the questions are totally unrelated to the point you are trying to make. And now you are getting into discussions that take your presentation away from the key points you wanted to make.
How do you deal with these two reasons for putting a spreadsheet on a slide? By using hidden slides. A hidden slide is a slide that is in your PowerPoint file, but does not appear in Slide Show mode. Make the spreadsheet slide a hidden slide and create a visual that communicates the key point contained in all those numbers. Since the spreadsheet is in the same file, the file still contains the detail if that is needed for documentation or contract purposes. If the boss wants to be able to access the details in case a question gets asked, add a hyperlink to the visual slide that jumps to the hidden spreadsheet slide. See this article for more information and a tutorial on hidden slides.
When I sit down with senior executives, it becomes clear that the reason they want the whole spreadsheet on the slide is because they aren’t getting what they really need in most presentations. As I explain in my latest book, Select Effective Visuals, leaders need actionable insights on what needs to be done next. Insights that consider the context of the results, the relationships between the data and other factors. They are almost always only getting measurement results that answer what happened or performance results that answer how the results compare to a previous period or goal. They ask for the spreadsheet so they can figure out the insights themselves.
They won’t ask for the spreadsheet if you provide them the insights they need. This means you will have to look at the analysis you have done and take a step back. Consider the context of the results. How do these results compare to industry or other benchmarks? How are these results related to other factors? What is the bigger picture of what is going on in this area? Consider all of the different perspectives and then come up with a few actions that should be taken to move forward. That is what the boss wants you to do instead of having to do that work themselves by looking at the whole spreadsheet.
By understanding why leaders ask for spreadsheets on slides, you can address their concerns and replace spreadsheets with focused visuals that clearly communicate the key messages.
Dave Paradi has been recognized by the media and his clients as a presentation expert. He has authored eight books and four Kindle e-books on effective PowerPoint presentations. He consults on high-stakes presentations including one used to brief one of President Obama’s cabinet ministers. Dave is one of only fourteen people in North America to be recognized by Microsoft with the PowerPoint Most Valuable Professional Award for his contributions to the PowerPoint presentation community. His ideas have appeared in publications around the world.