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  • 05.21.21

7 DON’Ts and DOs for Priming Your Audience to Engage with Your Data Presentation

  • by Edith Cook, Senior Director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness, Carlow University
Priming Your Audience to Engage with Your Data Presentation

An important factor influencing audience engagement is their readiness to receive data related information, which can be primed through modifications to traditional presentation styles and practices.

Is your audience ready to engage with new information?

Think about how you get ready to learn something new. You need to be comfortable and not be rushed. You need to feel like you know enough to integrate new information. You want the new information to build on things you already know or are interested in. If you’re like me, you want to learn something that you didn’t know before or acquire an insight that makes you view the topic in a new or different way. You want to be able to put the information to use personally or professionally. Institutional Research Reporting Blues

As IR professionals, we are usually the ones up there presenting the data reports. We may be asked to present student outcomes data to a committee or share findings from the latest climate survey. Maybe it’s metrics associated with strategic priorities. Perhaps we finally get that chance to explain our Sankey diagram of student flow by program. Whatever it is that is being presented, we typically have great slides and/or handouts. Unfortunately, the experience of many IR professionals is facing an audience displaying little engagement. Even worse, the results may not prompt any meaningful action despite all the resources used to gather, analyze, and disseminate important data.

How do we find ourselves in this situation, and so often? More importantly, how might we get out of this ineffective presentation mode and more successfully engage our audience so that progress can be made? Is it possible to generate meaningful engagement when we are often given less than 30 minutes to present results from an important study?

Priming Your Audience to Engage with Research Results

After years of trying different ways to increase meaningful engagement with campus stakeholders, I have developed some rewarding strategies that maximize audience participation by leaning on my background in cognitive science and program evaluation. I also have long been a fan of borrowing marketing concepts to develop techniques that engage constituents in a process that connects their experiences with the data so that insights may lead to strategies for improvement.

The following 7 DON’Ts and DOs for designing a data presentation were developed to increase the likelihood that participants will be in a state of readiness to connect to the information, process the data, and use research results meaningfully.

The 7 Don’ts and Dos for Priming Your Audience to Engage with Data

  1. For Starters: DON’T miss opportunities to negotiate for more time. Time is your friend, and you should want more of it devoted to engaging your audience and synthesize your results. It’s not unseemly to ask for for enough time to engage your audience with the information you plan to present. DO make a case for the importance of your findings and explain that data presentations that aren’t rushed will better enable participants to integrate key information that will lead to informed action.

  2. DON’T wait to elicit a response back from audience members. DO make an attempt as soon as possible to engage your audience. There are several ways you can do this simply and quickly. Try taking a quick poll, even if it is just a “show of hands”. One of my favorites is having the audience guess a fun fact related to the research. If you are talking about student enrollment you could have everyone guess the most popular first name from the incoming class, for example. Trick questions or a little humor also work nicely to secure their attention.

  3. DON’T provide any results…until your audience understands the purpose for the study. This may seem trivial, but many IR presentations skim lightly over the “why” and go straight to the “what resulted”. The problem is that the audience will be less engaged and invested in the data if they don’t understand the reason for the study in the first place. DO provide context and purpose for the information you are providing. All good data stories have a quest- what was the impetus for your research? The audience needs to know why they should care about the results.

  4. DON’T provide results…until you engage your audience in considering what they think the results may be or should be. You have the attention of your audience and you have set up why they should care about the results, but don’t give them those findings just yet. DO prompt them to process what they think the results might be first. If they consider what they expect, they will use their metacognitive skills to actively think about the topic in a way that connects to their knowledge and experience. They will be able to better recognize results that contrast with their assumptions or prior experiences if they are able to do some processing before hearing the “answers”. One way to do this is to select a question or two related to your results, as shown in the processing prompt example below, and have audience members guess the %s that answered a certain way. This gets the audience thinking about why they might expect a certain result.


    Processing Prompt Example Ask: “Which category of student do you think reported more financial distress: our undergraduate students or our graduate students? Why?”.

    This not only prompts your audience members to be curious about the answer, but it also puts them into the mode of thinking about the issues related to financial distress. If you report your findings without preparing the audience to be interested in the answer, the data will likely have less impact on their thinking, and their ability to generate insights embedded in their own experience.

  5. DON’T ignore definitions or footnote them because they seem boring. DO establish data definitions whenever and wherever you can. The important role of IR professionals to contribute to data literacy on campus can’t be stressed enough. Clarifying terms will facilitate data understanding. In addition, if you don’t take the time to carefully explain your terms, you run the risk of individuals in your audience being distracted or even rankled during your presentation regarding a term you used differently than what is familiar to them. Take the time to do everything possible to avoid having confused or rankled participants in your audience.

  6. DON’T ignore what science says about cognitive load. There is no benefit to overwhelming participants with so many results that they begin to feel numb. DO err on the side of providing less information. Remember: you may have already processed all the findings, but your audience will need more time. One solution is to save some of your results to share in the Q&A or in more detail in a report. You can even set up data sharing sessions where most of the information provided is prompted by questions to maximize engagement.

  7. DON’T pass up opportunities to co-present with subject matter experts, including students. Having others co-present invigorates data reports and lends credibility and usually increases participant interest and engagement. In particular, student partners often add valuable insights and energy to presentations. DO collaborate with others to broaden the appeal and value of your presentation.


Edith Cook

Dr. Edith Cook is the Senior Director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness at Carlow University, a private, Catholic liberal arts institution in Pittsburgh serving roughly 2,000 students.  Her professional areas of focus are participatory and collaborative research, data visualization, and systems evaluation.  After earning a PhD in Program Evaluation and Planning from Cornell University (2005) she completed postdoctoral research at the University of Pittsburgh through the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) program.  She has found a happy home in Institutional Research.


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