Bringing Emotion to Data
October 10, 2020

Data: Memorable or not?

When I’m not acting as a user experience designer and consultant, I architect and overhaul presentations and have done so for almost 2 decades. For about 10 of those, I worked at a retirement plan services firm where, as you can imagine, presentations contained quite a bit of data.

As I’m sure you can also imagine, the data was presented in a less than exciting manner. The emotions that they created were often boredom coupled with a strong desire to check your phone and get lost in your Facebook feed.

Many people who present data on a regular basis are so familiar with it that they assume the data speaks for itself, and so they don’t DO much with it. Guess what? Usually, the data doesn’t speak for itself.

Missed opportunities abound in these kinds of decks. How did the data relate to each other? To the audience? Why does the audience care about XYZ when you’re point is ABC? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of cleaning up data slides so that they’re JUST readable or on brand and forget that, as speakers and presentation professionals, we should be looking for the story that’s hiding in the data. We should try to attain a deep understanding of the charts and tables in front of us so that we can present it in a more impactful way.

What makes data memorable?

It tells a story. It’s interactive. It makes you want to dive deeper.

These are things that make data more memorable and hopefully contribute to your audience acting out the desired call to action. But when we start talking about data specifically in the presentation setting, there are a lot of factors working against us before the presenter even walks to the front of the room.

You’re already limited by time, of course. But other factors might include things like the mindset of the attendees.

  • Do they want to be there? Or do they HAVE to be there?
  • Is it around lunchtime and they’re either starving or in the middle of a food coma?
  • Are the attendees familiar with the topic or is this all new to them? 

Memorable data in presentations

Considering all of these factors, let’s revisit what makes data memorable and ask, “What makes data in presentations memorable?”

For data to be memorable in this scenario, you need to be strategic. First, is the information understandable at a glance? Slides are like billboards; the data needs to be delivered as though it’s on one.

Second, is your data readable? How big is your room? Will the people in the back be able to read it? How small is the screen people are watching your presentation on? Test your presentation for readability in a big rooms and on small screens. Pay attention to font size, color contrasts, and line thicknesses.

Third, is the data relatable? Does the data evoke an emotion or is it B-O-R-I-N-G? If you play your cards right, you can make data impactful and memorable with hardly any “design” at all. Sometimes, all you need is the right timing in your delivery to bring attention to an astonishing “what’s in it for me” statistic or line chart.

Recognizing data clues

Before we get into how to design a data slide to evoke emotion or inspire action, let’s first talk about how to recognize a data slide when we see one. Of course, there are very obvious examples like tables full of numbers, bar charts, line charts, and pie charts.

Some examples aren’t quite as obvious. Tables that are full of text, tables depicting types of nouns, and slides full of bulleted text. Sure, maybe this one says 15% at the bottom, and there are a few numbers in here… but what’s actually going on?

As you read through the slides you’re given, watch for data clues. Words that indicate that there is a possibility that the information on the slide can be represented in a more visual and quantitative manner. After we identify these slides, we can start thinking about how to design for an emotional response.

Data clue words:

  • Percent
  • X in X did Y
  • Number words
  • Fraction words
  • Time words
  • More than and less than relationship phrases
  • Trend
  • Phase
  • Geographic location

This is an actual slide I received from a client with a list of date ranges. But the way this is written, can you look at this slide and feel how long these time periods are?

Visually, we can create a timeline that ultimately shows how each of these phases relate to each other. How fast will the Conference room furniture delivery period feel compared to the AV install? Let’s find out.

Once we have this info on a timeline, we can see how long these phases last without having to think about it. Our first feeling we bring to this data is clarity. Depending on what department your audience members sit in, they may also get rather excited if they see that their part of the move is about to start.

Taking a step back, we can see where we came from and where we are now. By reframing how we present the information, we can already improve the chance that our audience feels the emotion that is highly sought after– clarity.

Emotion in data

Now, when I talk about bringing emotion to data, I’m not necessarily talking about anything extreme. Sure, it would be awesome if we had something to present that was so profound that, through our design and delivery, we make the whole room break down into sobs of joy, or rages of anger that fuels a momentous call to action. But in most cases, we’re aiming to create little tiny sparks of one of these (slide with emojis). Well-timed hits of emotion produce a higher likelihood of information retention and a greater chance of audience members taking the desired action. What we don’t want to do is make them feel overwhelmed, bored or sleepy.

There are a few design techniques that you can apply in various combinations to achieve the desired emotional reaction including color, imagery, language choice, and motion. You don’t need to apply all 4, either. If one or two techniques are applied really well, the data takeaway will stick with your audience a lot longer than if you just put a chart on a slide.


Color can potentially give you the most bang for your buck. You don’t have to worry about copyright or put as much thought into is as you would for rewording titles and such. However, if you have super-strict brand guidelines when it comes to color, sometimes hitting the mark here can be tricky and you have to get creative with color substitutions.

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Images can really bring a lot of impact to your slides. Then can convey a plethora of emotion.

Each of these images makes you feel something different and at varying levels of emotion as well. There are some images here that can be interpreted in more than one way. Does the path represent the beginning of an exciting new journey or does make you feel lonely and isolated? Depending on the data each image is paired with, it could be perceived as either one.

The dessert conundrum

To further illustrate how to design around ambiguity let’s use the following statistic. The subject of this data point is controversial, so prepare yourselves.

“Clowns eat cake 65% slower than kids.”

This is an interesting bit of information. Ok, awesome. So, we’re talking about clowns. Let’s start designing this data to create impact. First, let’s use imagery for this since there are plenty of clown photos readily available. And we’re talking about cake—let’s represent that percentage with a group of icons.

There! We have a happy delightful slide about cake and clowns! I feel like the presenter will be completely happy with this data slide. It’ll make the audience hungry for more. Or at least for cake. Unfortunately, because my presenter worded the statistic in an ambiguous manner, it appears that I designed this exactly wrong.

What the presenter REALLY meant is that clowns eat cake slower than the EAT kids. Data can be ambiguous. Because of that, we want to make sure we’re supporting that data with some visuals that help the audience truly understand the horrific reality about these particular clowns.

We can see now how we’ve made a pretty big difference at how our data is interpreted and felt by our audience just by using color and visual assets. This all brings us to the one thing that would have helped me avoid this problem.

Language choice.

Besides ambiguity, there are other things to take into consideration with regards to language choice. Is your language too strong? Make the data story compelling without yelling. Know the data and its purpose. Empathize with the subject matter and audience.

If we tweak the language used in our clown example, we can make a much stronger impact. The message is no longer ambiguous.


Motion is very powerful. Never use motion lightly. If you have something that is the main call to action or a piece of data that is a really big deal, that’s where you use motion in a very intentional manner. Motion can be implied like this map by Charles Joseph Minard. Probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn, it portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the thick band shows the size of the army at each position. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales.

Hans Rosling was a master at using motion to help people understand complex data sets. Let’s watch. I encourage you to watch the whole video, but I tend to focus on the snippet between 00:30 and 3:20. What keeps you engaged?

You can design for emotional impact all you want. You can do everything I suggest to you today. But if the presentation is delivered poorly, the information can still fall flat. Delivery is key.

For before and after examples of data makeovers, watch the first video above.

Take care of your data

Maintain data integrity. Never let design get in the way of data accuracy. Don’t use stacked icons as bars in charts. Don’t use 3D charts. Even. This is an extreme example of the same data side-by-side in 3D and 2D used to illustrate a point. However, even a 3D pie chart distorts the relationships between the sizes of the slices making it difficult to determine how to read the data.

Beware false narratives. With great power comes great responsibility. Sometimes we see a story where there isn’t one. As a data storyteller, you have a lot of potential power and responsibility. How you select, arrange and present the facts can change the way people think or how they view the world. Cognitive biases can twist data stories.

Truthiness: the belief that a particular statement is true based on the intuition of an individual or group, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Truthiness is bad. Accurate representation of data in a non-leading manner is of utmost importance.

Correlation does not imply causation.

Just because data sets look similar doesn’t necessarily mean they have any relationship whatsoever. Here’s a great place to go for more ridiculous charts.

Go forth and present data well.

There you have it. I hope this has helped you improve how you present data. Remember, by using color, imagery, iconography, carefully chosen and clear language, motion, and delivery you can get your audience excited about your data.