Presentation Matters: Using Your Data to Make Your Case

By Patricia Steele
HigherEd Insight
You can use data to tell stakeholders a numerical and visual story that makes the case for your program and adult college completion. Presenting your data through clear and appropriate graphics that pack a punch can get your point across succinctly and meaningfully.
By representing data graphically, stakeholders can get a meaningful picture at a glance of how many jobs have been created, how the campuses in your program are faring in terms of post-traditional student enrollment, or how successful your municipality has been in engaging employers compared with other cities, for example. Presenting data in a clear and compelling fashion is a key part of making the case for adult college completion.

Fancy software is not usually necessary; presenting information through tools you probably already have, like Microsoft Excel, can do the job nicely.

Hot tips and Engaging Examples

This example from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities adult degree completion website shows a focused use of data to convey information. (click to enlarge)

The following example from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s college completion task force illustrates the effective use of pie charts. (click to enlarge)

This example from a Florida College Access Network policy brief shows effective labeling to communicate information. (click to enlarge)

This chart from an annual report by Greater Louisville’s 55,000 Degrees project highlights differences in degree attainment progress among metropolitan areas. (click to enlarge)

Shout Out

Share your successes with us. How do you share data with stakeholders? What has been effective in your experience in doing so?

  • Choose your data wisely. Pick data that clearly and simply tell the story you want to tell. Focus each graphic on trying to explain a single point. For example, if you want to talk about program enrollment by veterans over age 40 on your campus from 2007 to 2012, include only program enrollment data by veterans over age 40 on your campus for those years in your graphic. Make sure your data are reliable and you are sure you can stand behind them. Be sure to note your data source to show that your data are trustworthy; often, you can note the source directly under your graphic.
  • Pick your graphic carefully to make sure your story is easy to read. You have many options available to you for presenting data: bar charts, circle graphs and pie charts, simple charts, column graphs—the list goes on and on. Select the visual organizer that makes your data easiest to read and understand. Pie charts can do a nice job of showing parts of a whole, like informing stakeholders about your budget components.  Use a bar graph to compare variables between different groups or to track (relatively large) changes over time. 

  • Label your data. Whatever your choice of graphic organizer, label your data clearly. Tell what data are being discussed on your x and y axes, or across the top of your chart and down the side. If you have bars showing percentages or numbers, include them in the bars. (Unless it really matters, round your data to the nearest whole number.) Give your graphic a succinct and descriptive title. Be sure to tell your N (how many people, things, etc. are included in your sample) if relevant.

  • Compare to help put your story in perspective. When you want to show how your data stack up against other data, a comparison can be helpful. For example, you may want to compare your program data to another program, data from your town to the state, or other myriad possible comparisons that tell a story about how your program is doing. Keep your graphic simple and to the point; yes, a complex scatter graph might work, but will your readers/data consumers be better served by a simple bar or column chart?



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