My fellow Swarthmore alumnus Simon St. Laurent introduced me to the concept that Excel is really a programming language rather than a simple spreadsheet tool. Not only do I agree with this sentiment, but I also think it has a profound impact on how we use data in presentations.
In short, if Excel is a programming language, tables are code and thus should only appear in presentations when absolutely necessary.
By “programming language,” I mean that skilled users can configure Excel to complete complex computation tasks. I don’t mean “the spreadsheet from hell,” the 10-meg one with 25 tabs and dense webs of referrals. More often than not, these unwieldily beasts merely stack simple calculations on top of each other.
Rather, I mean more involved examples, such as a spreadsheet that solves business problems such as route optimization or decision making. Programmers have even used Excel for recreational computing such as a video game or even a music video. Yes, AC/DC, the coelacanth of rock & roll, has adopted Excel. Be afraid.
It follows, then, that if Excel is a programming language, then tables essentially are code.
Sure, most people can absorb simple 3-row by 3-column table easily enough. However, when these tables grow to 10 or 15 rows or columns (or both), they become nearly impossible to absorb at a glance. Yet, how often have we seen tables like these inserted into PowerPoint presentations?
Mea culpa. I have often felt the need to stuff a big table onto a PowerPoint slide by dropping the type size into single digits. Mea culpa maxima.
Let me put it another way: would you put HTML code into a PowerPoint slide or would you simply show the resulting image? Sure, if you had to discuss the code as code, you might. However, you will probably need to show the image much more often than the code.
Instead of presenting the table, why not make a few graphs of the salient bits? If you want a presentation to bog down, showing a block of numbers will do the trick. If you’d rather make a point and move on, you want graphs.
Of course, tables have their role in documentation as a separate from presentation. Depending on the nature of the presentation, you as the presenter may wish to distribute the tables ahead of time or include it as a leave-behind for closer scrutiny. However, in a presentation, you want to focus on the key points rather than pore over detail.
Consider this a PSA: a presentation-saving announcement.