How To Present Your Data Like Spielberg

Data visualization and screenplays may seem like night and day but there is a lot Hollywood can teach you about how to present your data


I recently attended the Data Visualization Summit in San Francisco. Over the coming weeks, I will be sharing the insights I gathered from some of the most impactful presentations.

Ted Frank — Story Strategist at Backstories Studio

The movie Moneyball revolves around a baseball team with a pitiful budget attempting to create a championship winning team through the amazing use of data. It is, in essence, an elaborate, Oscar-nominated case for gaming analytics.

While the movie was a commercial success, what it managed to do other than simply "prove that nerds rule" was completely revolutionize how baseball teams picked their players. Following its release, gaming analytics (specifically, sabermetrics) completely exploded in America. There now isn't a self-respecting major team which doesn't have there very own Jonah Hill feeding them their own sweet sabermetric insights.

However, in 1964, decades before Moneyball was ever released and when Brad Pitt was but a 1-year-old, a statistician by the name of Earnshaw Cook released a book called 'Percentage Baseball'. Armed with it, he visited all the major league baseball teams attempting to educate them about the undeniable benefits of sabermetric analysis. His data elaborated the exact same thing the movie did, yet not a single team was swayed.

So what is the difference between Cooks databook and the movie Moneyball?

The story.

The way movies tell stories is exactly the way executives like being presented to:

Simple, real, and powerful.

The problem is, all the data we use ends up looks the same; a flood of figures which the uninitiated simply can't digest in a meaningful way. "That's why we say it's like drinking water from a fire hose," explains Frank.

Our technological dependence has decimated our patience and now even goldfish have longer attention spans than us. This means when presenting to a room full of executives, simply giving them numbers, however insightful, is rarely going to garner the reaction you wanted. Numbers don't make you feel anything, stories do.

It's more than just having the data, it's about how you deliver it.

Screenwriter's playbook

First, ask yourself, what do your stakeholders need to do with this information? This should be your guiding light throughout the process.

With this in mind, you want your data visualization to be more than just simple; you want it linear. Delivered piece by piece

How do you make it linear? Take a note out of the screenwriter playbook:

Inciting incident - the turning point - climax

Finding 3 key points to rest the entire presentation is ideal, not only because of screenplay structure format, but because it's the probable number of points your average stakeholder will be capable of retaining by the end of a presentation.

Think about what key 3 things in your deck of information that will best help your stakeholders do their jobs better. Formulate the rest of the presentation around these.

Kill your babies

Once you have these 3, strive your hardest to cut out any and everything which doesn't need to be included, regardless of how interesting an insight you find it (hence the expression, 'kill your babies)

- The leaner it is, the stronger and more impactful your story will be

- The simpler it is, the easier it is for your stakeholders to fully comprehend

Make it real

Movies create a sense of realism through:

Character - setting - action

This same logic can be applied to data visualizations you provide as it will always either relate to something that has happened or so something that can happen.

Make it powerful

To make something powerful, it needs to be emotional

Data viz experts and data professionals, in general, tend to appeal to the rational side of their audiences. However, to really make people care, you need to inspire an emotional reaction. We are first and foremost, emotional creatures; you need to really hit people in the gut to inspire passion.


This is greater than cinema, our bodies are hardwired to react to a build in tension. It influences almost every aspect of our lives and is at the very heart of our human experience.

  • Music - great for creating and releasing tension
  • Framing (The dolly zoom) - Zooming in on a point you want to focus on increases the tension and thus, engagement
  • Pacing
  • Anticipation
  • Pauses
  • Rhetorical questions

Never start on the bite

If you start your visualization on your key point or figure, not only will it not hold the weight it deserves but you will lose your audiences along the way as it gets lost in the rest of the presentation.

Never start at the bite. Reverse it. Slowly and intentionally bring people towards the key point.

Final points

- You don't have to be like everybody else, even though your stakeholders might not know it, they are thirsting for someone to move them. Have the confidence to go against the norm. It will pay off if you do it right.

- Not every presentation needs to be as elaborate, remember, it always depends on your audience. For example, If it is a team of engineers, getting straight to the numbers could be the most impactful way of approaching it.

- Create a long version of data and short version of the presentation. But make sure you only give it to them at the end or else they will all immediately stop listening.


  • Make it simple
  • Make it real by putting them in the action
  • Make it powerful by hitting them in the gut
  • Then ramp it all up with a hefty dose of tension

As Frank eloquently puts it;

"Time to stop being the nerd and become the Brad"

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