Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Liam Brennan: Presenting complex information isn’t child’s play

Liam Brennan (@LCBrennan), Global Director of Innovation, MediaCom is one of our industry’s preeminent thinkers in innovation and NDA’s monthly columnist.

My nine-month-old daughter’s favourite book is called “Guess Who”. Throughout the book, the reader is presented with a series of anonymous cartoon bottoms and given a series of visual clues to deduce who the bottom’s rightful owner is. The reader can lift the bottom (a cardboard flap) to reveal the face of the posterior’s owner. 100+ reads and Guess Who remains an exciting read for both of us.

However, my issue with Guess Who is that it’s far too enjoyable and my daughter is impeding her ability to enjoy the more educational books I’ve also bought to teach her numbers, shapes and colours, which also use the ‘flap’ reveal mechanic. My daughter is disappointed when she lifts the other flaps as there’s not a face staring back at her, but rather a number and the corresponding volume of small fish, a series of triangles or an orange.

There is one exception – the cheeky monkey. The monkey appears in Guess Who and both the numbers and the shapes book. She knows the monkey’s face, and when it appears under the flap to showcase the number of fingers on his/her hand, disappointment soon turns to excitement as my daughter becomes interested in both the number of fingers and the book as a whole – for a few more pages at least.

How information is presented is as important, if not more so, than the information that is being presented. We humans prefer information to be presented to us in the fashion we’re most familiar with. It’s much easier to read, faster to process and to recall at a later stage. Changing weekly report formats causes huge confusion for a regular reader. Presenting to an executive who has little time for spreadsheets will tune-out of in-depth analysis and want headlines. A nine-month-old who expects monkeys to convey information will be confused by multi-coloured squares.

We’ve all been in a scenario where we’ve presented information to an internal or external stakeholder and it’s been received poorly. The information held within, subsequent insights and recommendations may have been strong, but because the information was not conveyed in a manner the reader is used to/wants it presented, the reader loses out on valuable information and the creator walks away frustrated.

From my experience, weak information presented well is often digested better than great information presented weakly. And this holds very true for the increasing technical conversations being had around areas such as media and digital transformation, where the audience may no longer be solely the media lead or the digital lead, who is au-fait with the subject matter, but may be destined to a wider presentation shared to the CFO, CIO, CTO or indeed, CEO.

I have sat through many presentations from large consultancy firms that are filled with well-designed slides and narratives but say very little in the way of action and direction. What the more corporate consultants often do very well is prioritising design, copywriting and re-use stress-tested frameworks to tell stories with a visual narrative. Presentations from specialist agencies or digital transformation specialists may not necessarily be as slick, but the content within is often of higher quality and more actionable.

A great deal of my time is spent correcting the work of the former and aligning and building on the latter. But the former is much better at knowing and understanding both their immediate and ultimate audience – often a stakeholder may who not be close to, or an expert in the nuts and bolts and needs to be provided with a presentation of data that is easily interpreted and re-purposed, and a value-driven story that can be shared to high-level stakeholders in a visual language they are familiar with.

This is not a commentary on consultancy quality, but rather the need for a change in how information is presented by agencies and specialists. ‘Back room’ conversations have shifted to the boardroom, tech firms such as Salesforce and Google are spoken about less in terms of activation plans and technicals but as transformation partners, and senior stakeholders are asking for the same information as the media, data and tech teams but with a view to business, not activation, planning.

New audiences and a more mature conversation require a different approach to how information is presented and shared – and it’s probably quite the pivot from the status quo. 

Your preferred method of presenting information is typically not how your client or their management prefer it to be presented. Knowing their relative expertise, personal/company objectives and performance indicators, and where the information will ultimately end up being presented internally helps tailor a better format and narrative – and ultimately save time and pain for all parties.

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