data visualisation


It isn’t very often that the CEO of a $100 Bn fund (who’s been called “the most powerful person in Silicon Valley“), makes a public presentation, just a month after his biggest investment has suffered an embarrassing debacle.

The stakes don’t get higher than this.

What does the iconic Masayoshi Son do? Beat around the bush and ignore the core issues? Or come up with a detailed nuts-and-bolts plan to fix the issues?

He does something in between.

This post is my attempt at deconstructing the recent SoftBank earnings deck (released on 6-Nov-2019).

Going past the initial shock …

I got to know of the deck through an IIMA Whatsapp group (one of the fastest news dissemination sources of our day).

Like many others, I was taken aback by some of the slides.

Here are 4 of them bunched together in one image:

Select Slides from the SoftBank Earnings deck

My first reaction: ‘Really, is this how the CEO of a $100 Bn fund presents? These slides seem like the work of a first-year MBA student!

I searched online for reactions and found that some news articles concurred. For instance, this one from Vice (‘These Delusional PowerPoint Slides Show How SoftBank Wants to Save WeWork‘) and this from NY Mag (‘Here Are Some Insane Slides From SoftBank’s Presentation Explaining (?) How It Will Fix WeWork‘).

But then (after a friend’s contrary reaction) I realised – I shouldn’t pass judgement without examining the entire picture. And so, I ended up watching the presentation by Mr Son himself, online.

(He’s speaking in Japanese and a voiceover is translating. Here’s a transcript I found later).

Having seen the presentation, I did see some merit in the slides being so utterly simple. (But also found some areas of improvement).

So here goes: My take on the 3 things that I liked about this deck and the 3 things that could have been better.

(Note: To keep this simple, I’m only reviewing the ‘WeWork Business’ portion – slides 48-61 – and not the entire deck).

3 things that were good

1. Start from Point A: Take the bull by the horns

For SoftBank’s investors, the over-arching concern was clear: WeWork.

And Son takes it head-on.

In storytelling, I call this ‘starting from the right Point A‘. You may have a thousand things to say – but you need to acknowledge the first/biggest question in the audience’s mind, at the beginning itself (you may answer it later – but at least acknowledge it).

2. A simple, clearly articulated plan

Instead of a confusing mass of plans and action-items, Son utterly simplifies the recovery plan into three initiatives: Pause new offices, reduce expenses and terminate unprofitable businesses.

In fact, this entire ‘symptoms-diagnosis-cure-outcome’ part of the deck really simplifies, what undoubtedly must have been some complex number-crunching.

Here’s my summary using the Pyramid Principle.

The heart of the SoftBank Presentation – the WeWork turnaround plan

The above messages are delivered using the simplest visuals possible – such that anyone would be able to understand them*.

3. Use an analogy to combat another

Analogies are powerful tools for a business storyteller, as we have previously discussed. Great communicators make frequent use of this technique to simplify complex topics and situations.

In this deck, Son uses two analogies (interestingly, both are inadvertently related!):

i. Stormy / calm seas: In order to indicate that SoftBank is indeed facing difficult times, he likens it to being in a storm (in the first slide). He mentions the starkly negative media coverage… and uses that as a starting point to explain why things are not all doom and gloom.

Towards the end, he indicates that the storm is a perception issue (“We don’t see any storm, rough orders. It’s just a soft order, to be honest.“) and they they would continue along the same path (“But from my perspective, no change in the journey, no vision change, no strategy change. All we will do is to just keep going, keep moving forward.“)

I thought that it would’ve been better to acknowledge that “yes, we are facing stormy weather now, but don’t worry, we got this ship under control and will soon be sailing in clear waters“.

But honestly, I don’t know enough about the business/sector to comment (read disclaimers at the end!).

ii. Sinking ship or basket of apples: The other analogy that Son employs is to combat one used by the press – who liken WeWork to a sinking ship, which might take down the entire SoftBank fleet with it.

Son acknowledges that this maybe what the external world thinks, and then counters with his own analogy – about apples!

According to Son, WeWork’s portfolio is like a basket of apples. Some are red and ready for eating (the 40% of buildings which are more than 12 months old), but most are ‘unripe green apples’ which will take some time to become ripe and edible. His point: As they ripen, WeWork’s revenue and profitability will increase.

Analogies are tricky^ – if used well they can be impactful. In this case, they seem to work to explain the simple concept of early-stage assets. The important thing to note is that by changing the analogy (from sinking ships to a basket of apples), Son completely changes the frame of reference for the discussion.

Those were the good parts. What could have been better?

3 things that could be better

1. Two separate slide decks – one for showing and one to download

There’s a saying in Hindi – ‘Haathi ke daant, khaane ke alag, dikhane ke alag‘ (An elephant has two sets of teeth – one for eating, one for showing) – which essentially means, don’t go by appearances.

I’m twisting the original meaning here – but my point is that a storyteller also needs to have two sets of presentations – one for presenting (Presentation) and one for downloading/email (SlideDoc).

I’ve explained the difference between the two in this earlier blog post (point #5).

In SoftBank’s case, the same slides that were used to present were then uploaded by them on the website. When such slides are seen without the accompanying narration, they lack meaning (and in this case look ridiculously simple – almost insulting the audience’s intelligence).

Also in today’s age, one needs to anticipate that a deck as important as this will be disseminated all over through social media – again without the crucial accompanying narration. Leaving it open to criticism of this sort. And this.

So what could have been done?

Two options.

i. A SlideDoc: SoftBank could have uploaded a slide with some text narration (the ‘SlideDoc’ version).

ii. Disclaimer with link: Alternatively, a simple disclaimer could have been included (a bit prominently) in each slide: “This document is incomplete without reference to, and should be viewed solely in conjunction with, the verbal briefing provided by SoftBank” (I should know – as consultants, we used to include this disclaimer on every presentation!) along with a link to the video on the website.

2. More detail about the turnaround plan

Given the magnitude of the WeWork debacle, and the extent of the hit on the valuation (and reputation), I think SoftBank could have provided more details about the rescue plan.

Just saying “Give it time – and we’ll soon be profitable” seems a bit superficial…

I understand that WeWork is a private company and doesn’t need to disclose numbers (which is why the ‘Hypothetical’ tag on the slides). But given the context, some details (especially on cost reduction initiatives) would have added credibility to the presentation.

3. Better preparation

Perhaps there was a time when a CEO could just land up on stage and share his/her thoughts extempore. Not any more. Since decades, business leaders (especially from Silicon Valley, led by Steve Jobs) have mastered the art of the scripted, rehearsed presentation. Why? Because they believe that the occasion, the audience and their company deserved the preparation. Otherwise, they would be doing a disservice to all the hard work that was done behind-the-scenes.

You could call Son’s presentation many things – but rehearsed and prepared would not be one of them.

Admittedly, he’s speaking in Japanese while a voiceover translates into English. If we go by the transcript however, there are many places where the lack of preparation is evident. For instance:

  • Getting basic numbers wrong (“Let me restate my earlier comment. Wasn’t that 4 out of 9? No? 5 out — so in final conclusion, it’s 5 out of 10. So sorry, let me restate once again, it’s 5 out of 10 Board seats.“),
  • Ad-nauseam repetition of some points (he narrates the logic of the impact of increase in occupancy ratio, twice!)
  • Mix-up of analogies (mentioned in footnotes)

Definitely you’d expect better from a senior leader for such a high-stakes presentation.

Overall take: This apple is neither ripe nor unripe

Overall it’s tough to give my take on the deck. I have very little context of WeWork and other investments of SoftBank, the business numbers, valuation details et al; and so, I cannot say if this deck does a good job of answering all investor questions. (On face value, it doesn’t seem to do so though).

In sum, it’s like a half-ripe apple? Some aspects to admire, and some to avoid.

All in all, good learning no?


* (About the need to keep the slides so simple) Honestly, I didn’t understand the need to make the slides so simple. What was the target audience here? Savvy investors can surely understand more complex slides. Was this made for a layperson audience? I’m not sure.

^ (About analogies being tricky) Incidentally, Son gets tied up in his own analogies here. In his fruit analogy, green apples are unripe (bad) and red apples are ripe (good); his slide visuals are exactly the opposite. In the slides, red stands for the ‘unripe’ assets (which are ‘in the red’), while green is used for the older ripe ones (with yellow indicating an in-between stage). He acknowledges the mismatch during his talk (“Green apples will turn. Actually, the color indicates the opposite, but green apple will be in red…“) Perhaps he could’ve used another analogy – maybe, using a traffic signal analogy?

Featured Image: From Wikimedia Commons by nobihaya [CC BY 2.0]

Some disclaimers (I’m a CA after all):

  1. This is not a comprehensive analysis of the entire deck – it only covers the WeWork Business portion.
  2. I haven’t been following the news/analysis about WeWork or SoftBank’s investments and so I don’t understand the investment, business context as well as I’d like to! Happy to know your thoughts in comments!


Nitish Saxena* is a typical corporate senior manager. He runs a multi-crore business unit for his company, which is in the travel space. Like most of his colleagues, Nitish is conscientious, target-oriented and professional. But there’s something different about him – his drive to learn is unparalleled. And it would really help him in an upcoming competition.

But first, the context.

Client context

Nitish’s company (let’s call it Vayu) is India’s leading player in its space and belongs to a highly-reputed group (part of the Fortune-India 100). Vayu is led by Sam*, a genial, smiling CEO with twinkling eyes and a ready quip. Sam was proud of his team of direct reports… but there was one concern. He wasn’t happy with the quality of presentations made by them during the quarterly or annual performance reviews. Sam found these presentations to be complex, data-heavy and lacking a clear story.

A sample set of slides from a Vayu business review presentation

He wrote to me later:

Personally, I was concerned with the quality of presentations prepared by my colleagues and would suffer a heartburn each time I saw a new one. We were stereotypical, tended to ‘cut and paste’ from previous ones, said almost the same thing to varied audiences with diverse purposes. This frustration gave rise to the need of reaching out to you for help.”

I was super-enthused, because this was that rare situation that trainers like us look forward to: genuine top-management need and buy-in for the intervention.

A custom-engagement

Through detailed conversations with Sam and a wonderfully involved HR team, we built a custom program for coaching Vayu’s senior business leaders. Normally in these programs, we use external case studies for the participants to practise the key storytelling concepts. While these case studies are often custom-built for the client, ultimately they remain that – case studies, not reality.

In case of Vayu, we decided to alter the script. Instead of artificial case studies we got the participant-teams to work on their actual business presentations (the ones presented in the previous quarterly review meeting) instead. Sure, this approach made my job more challenging  – since I did not have a ‘scripted’ case study, which I could prepare for. But it was more effective for the participants, since they found the storytelling principles more tangible and relatable when applied to their own real-life work.

There was an unexpected side benefit – during the session, as I was looking at their numbers I realised that I could apply a different analysis technique (called Variance Analysis) which resulted in more insightful and contrasting conclusions on their business performance drivers, as illustrated in this earlier post. (Note from Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: This was possible because of my background as a Chartered Accountant plus 7 years as a management consultant, something you may not find in many storytelling trainers!).

Overall, the feedback from the program was great… here’s Sam:

As you know, I was present for the first half day and was pleased to see that, without any feedback from me, you were addressing the same issues of which I have been apprehensive. As an illustration, your pantomime of greeting different people in different ways at the airport hit the right spot prompting need to change with different audiences...  I wish to thank you for conducting the workshop ‘Effective Storytelling with Data’. I think you may have heard from our HR Head regarding the feedback from the participants who rated  that program 4.50+ on a scale of 5, my kudos to you.

However, having said that, this workshop could’ve stayed as a one-time ‘program’ had the client not taken the next step.

The next step: reinforcement

To reinforce the learnings, and to prove that they work in real-life business scenarios, we created a follow-on project: handholding the participants for the upcoming Quarterly Review Meeting, which was due in a couple of months. As part of the handholding project, I would mentor and support the business leaders in preparing better review presentations.

To make it interesting, an award was announced for the best QRM presentation. The stakes had been raised.

What followed was a well-coordinated effort – regular calls were scheduled with each business leader to go through the performance data and jointly come up with the presentation. As the storyteller, my job was to question the leaders and nudge them to use the relevant storytelling principle. Templates were prepared for analysing the data and presenting the story (these templates can be used by the leaders in future QRMs too). The end-result was a set of presentations that were a vast improvement from their previous versions. A clear story supported by simple, visual slides and a far more richer discussion.

Sample slides pre-intervention

Sample slides post intervention

The outcome

The team was highly enthused with the new-look presentations and the better quality of discussions that resulted from it. Here’s a senior HR representative on the project:

We could observe vast improvement in all the presentations given by the business heads…. The best thing about having a good understanding of the data in the presentation is that it comes out very clearly in the narratives. It makes the job of the presenter so much easier to comprehend and to narrate the highlights when one has the right information presented neatly… Once again, you have gone above and beyond in your efforts to bring out the best in each of them! My sincere compliments!

And what about Nitish? Remember him as the learning-focused leader? During the fortnight when all the business leaders were reaching out to me for inputs on their presentation, one person outdid everyone else: Nitish. He was relentless at getting this right. He’d call to discuss how to prepare a particular chart, how to word a message, how to get the right presentation flow etc. He probably put in 2X of the time put in by his peers.

And so, it wasn’t surprising that it was Nitish who won the award for the Best Presentation at Vayu’s Q2-QRM. A well-deserved winner for sure.


You also have many Nitish Saxenas in your organisation – you can help them take-off, achieve their potential as impactful storytellers and deliver better business outcomes.

You know which flying school to reach out to!


* All names changed

Featured image credit: By Duch.seb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A simple chart on arms imports

Take a look at this visual that showcases arms imports by country, across two time periods:

Credit: Bloomberg, SIPRI

First up, the chart isn’t too bad. Fairly clean look, gridlines are in muted in the  background, no duplication of Y-axis numbers and data-labels. The message – which is quite simple – is supported clearly when you look at the first red clustered column.

But let’s dig deeper. This chart shows two things:

  • The share of arms imports by country, and
  • The movement of the share across two time periods.

The main message only reflects the first of these two aspects. If you strictly look at the message (India being the highest arms importer now), the previous 5-year period data is irrelevant.

So, here’s a tip – once your message is finalised, make the simplest chart possible to reflect that message.

Making the simplest chart for your message

If you just have to show the data to back this message: “India is the world’s largest arms importer”, you could either make a pie chart or as I prefer, a bar chart.

Apart from the ease with which the message is highlighted, notice one key advantage of the bar chart: the country labels are so much more easier to read (as compared to a pie chart).

What if I want to show both?

Having said that, what if you want to show both – the split by country and the movement over time?

Sure you can – but then the message should reflect that. Let’s examine what’s happening with India’s imports over the two time periods… We realise that, even in the previous 5-year period, India was the largest arms importer; and has in fact consolidated its #1 position. Well then, why don’t we state that as our main message:

“India consolidates position as world’s leading arms importer”

What about the chart then? We could use the same clustered column chart, but with one small change: highlighting the main message, and pushing everything else into the background.

For some people though, the clustered-column chart can be a bit cumbersome to read, especially if you want to compare across countries quickly. Another option, when comparing two or more component (i.e. percentage share) pieces, is the stacked bar or stacked column:

The stacking allows you to see two things clearly

  • Quickly compare share across countries within one time period
  • See that the total imports of the group as a whole, has also increased – by about 10%.

It does have a limitation as compared to the clustered chart though – identifying the component by country takes a little more effort (although, to minimise the effort, the legend is lined up in the bottom of the chart, in sync with the components).

What if I want show many messages from the same chart?

Ideally you should focus on one key message per chart, but sometimes you have charts that throw up multiple messages; and it becomes difficult to decide which one to focus on.  In that case, one of these following questions should help you decide

  • “What will my audience care about most deeply in this data?” (for instance, if you are presenting to an audience in Iran, you know which bars to highlight – all the Mid-East countries surrounding it)
  • “What message in this data helps me move my overall story forward in the direction I want to?”  (if your overall story is one of increasing domestic production of arms, you would highlight the China case)

Having said that, if you are presenting to a neutral audience; or if the data is part of a report that will be read by a wide audience, you may want to highlight different messages from the same chart.

Normally I prefer to create a different chart for each message. But in this case, it is possible to show multiple (sub-)messages in the same chart. Remember however, to consolidate the ‘sub-messages’ into an over-arching big-picture message.

So, here goes an attempt to interpret what’s going on in the world of arms imports (at which I am a certified, wait-for-it, arm-chair expert):

(By the way, seriously, I have no clue of international geo-politics. Please do not base your decision of setting up a weapons manufacturing unit in Greater Noida based on the above.)

(China may not be a bad idea though).

Anyway, the idea behind showing this revised visual is to encourage you to show the ‘story’ behind the data, by using these ‘explainer-text boxes’ (where possible).

Summing up

And so, to sum up the key tips in this post:

  • Once your message is finalised, make the simplest chart possible for that message
  • Focus on one key message per chart. Choose the same based on your audience and your overall story.
  • If you want to showcase multiple messages, use explainer-texts to highlight them, but distil a clear ‘main message’ on top

And finally, the next time you see a seemingly simple, arm-aadmi chart, look a little closer – you may just discover an interesting story that can be evocatively told.


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Featured image: By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A leading consumer-goods company has a lot to be proud of – they especially have an exemplary record when it came to shareholder returns.

In fact, they were so proud, that they probably thought “Huh, why bother showcasing it? People will figure it out”

So here’s the slide they used in a recent (November 2016) investor presentation:

Diagnosing the issues

You may be seeing many items of clutter in the charts, but did you notice something really off with the first chart?

You’re right – in order to give decent visibility to the first column (6,178), they cut off the second one (83,326) abruptly. As a result, the visual depiction of the growth in market cap is far lower than the actual growth.

Think about that – even a novice organisation would probably not underplay their performance to this extent. This is a leading consumer company with strong brands – clearly the finance folks didn’t get the memo from marketing.

Let’s identify all the issues with the slide:

The Makeover

I would remake the slide as follows:

 So what did we do differently there?

  1. Clean, clutter free, accurate charts: No unnecessary 3-D charts, Y-axes or vertical labels. Scale clearly reflected.
  2. A benchmark to give perspective: Sure, 29.7% CAGR sounds great, but it becomes more valuable when you give the perspective of the benchmark (Sensex) performance
  3. ‘Finding the story’: in the dividend chart, we have identified the ‘story’ – the fact of dividend having risen to pre-crisis levels – and showcased it using colour. You could choose to highlight a different story. But highlight something!
  4. Clear message on top and takeaway at the end: The takeaway implies: “keep investing in us, we perform well!”

The net takeaway from this post: If you have it, flaunt it!

The missing element

But you know what? While this slide may be much better to understand, it is missing something – the emotional element. We’ll tackle that in a later post.


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Featured image credit: Pixabay

Well, apparently we can. Especially their investor presentation for Q3-2015.

(I tried looking for later ones, but couldn’t get my hands on the PDF. Anyway, Q3-15 isn’t too far back, and the learnings are useful.)

So here are the first two slides from the original presentation.

All slides from Google Investor Presentation Q32015

Pretty underwhelming right? There’s actually some rich irony here, which we’ll come back to later in this post.

Identifying clutter and chart related issues

Now then, while there’s a lot to do on this slide, the first thing that catches my eye is the surprising amount of clutter (elements that are either unwanted or hinder comprehension):

We’ll fix these clutter-related issues in the makeover. But what about the chart itself? Is it the right choice?

So before we figure out how to tell the story, first things first – let’s find the story.

Finding (and telling) the story, slide by slide

In a quarterly financial presentation, while it’s alright to start with the revenue, it would be useful to give a slide or two on the industry scenario/context and any key factors that have influenced performance.

With that done, we start with revenue performance. On this, I would start with the total revenue first, without clouding the slide with details of various breakups (source, geography, product line, division etc.). The principle: Big picture first, then details.

So, here goes – the first (simple) slide in the made-over presentation:

Visual improvements done to the slide/chart:

  • Message: Clear message highlighted on top, which is supported by the chart
  • Chart choice: Since it’s just revenue, a simple column chart with suffice
  • Colour used deliberately: Instead of blindly going with four primary colours (because they happen to be the corporate colours), the key data stands out in blue, while the necessary-but-not-critical data stays in the background in grey
  • Cleaner: the Y axis, x-axis tick marks are all removed, billions used instead of millions

What should be the next slide? Looking at the revenue performance, I bet a lot of questions are popping in the audience’s minds: What drove the increase in the last couple of quarters? How much do key segments contribute and how is that contribution changing?

Now’s a good time to introduce that segment-share chart:

Here, apart from the visual improvements, the changes are:

  • Explanation for the movement: Why is the share of Network sites reducing? Why is RoW share falling?
  • A takeaway: that answers the ‘so-what’ question at the end of the slide

What comes next? Here’s what Google had done in their original presentation – a slide on Traffic Acquisition costs, followed other costs and then the Operating margin.

You’ll notice many of the same issues in these slides as in the revenue one. While we’ll fix them, let’s figure out the narrative first. We’ve spoken about total revenue and its split. Should we dive into an element of cost (TAC) now? Remember the principle – big picture first, then details.

After total revenue, the investors would want to know the total operating income (or EBITDA) and then the breakup of costs that impact the same. So we’ll order our slides accordingly:

In the above slide, we have used most of the chart-visual principles mentioned earlier. The message focuses on the margin percentage and its movement across the last year and quarter. The fall in the last quarter (and overall across the last 2 years) is something that will need explaining. Now’s the time to show the cost breakup slide.

So, there’s an interesting general trend in the cost data (despite some fluctuation) – current costs are reducing while R&D cost is increasing, accounting for most of the margin erosion since the last two years. We have chosen to focus on YoY change in this presentation; however you may choose to showcase the two-year trend or the QoQ movement. The choice is fine as long as:

  • It is something the audience would look for and
  • It is consistently applied throughout the presentation.

Anyway, that brings us to the end of this makeover. Now let’s tackle that irony bit.

The Irony (and some cheap thrills)

Google’s teams make a lot of presentations and most of them are excellent. In fact, one person who honed her data visualisation and storytelling skills at Google, went on to write a bestselling book, ‘Storytelling with Data’. This is Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, and I’m sure she’ll have a bunch of suggestions to the Finance team at Google over their investor presentations.

Meanwhile, we can get our cheap thrills by announcing, “Look Ma, I improved a Google presentation”


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Featured image: Pixabay ; All slides from Google Investor Presentation Q32015 

How do you effectively communicate a data set like this?

That table contains life-expectancy data for 50 countries, for the period 1960-2014. It is deliberately kept hazy and tough to read – imagine trying to show it on a chart.

Apart from their enormity, there is another challenge when it comes to disseminating such data sets – on development outcomes such as life expectancy, female fertility and income levels – they are inherently “boring”. Entities such as UNDP, World Bank and WHO have been publishing multiple reports that run into reams of paper over the decades – and yet, despite free availability of the data, public awareness of these indicators is woefully poor.

One Swedish professor working in the domain of public health decided to do something about it. This was Professor Hans Rosling, whose famous TED talks have been watched by millions (you may have also seen them).

Unfortunately Professor Rosling passed away recently on 7th February, prompting a raft of tributes on Twitter.

Source: Twitter

In case you thought the reason for his popularity was because he was like a dashing ‘Robert-Langdon-type’ who would rock the stage, take a look at this picture:

Image credit: TED 

You see a frail old man, with hunched shoulders, wearing a crumpled, ill-fitting suit – this is the guy people are raving about?

Ah, but you have to see him deliver his talk.

Now might be a good time to watch the most popular Hans Rosling TED talk (in case you haven’t already) delivered way back in Feb 2006:

So, what did they do there?

A revolutionary way of showing the data

For decades we only knew 2D charts – until Ola Rosling (the professor’s son) decided to build charts with a third dimension: time. The motion charts used by Gapminder Foundation in the video, are absolutely striking and bring the data alive and kicking. (see from 2:25 in the video)

That sportscaster-delivery

Of course the charts probably cause only 20% of the impact – the rest is due to that gobsmacking delivery style! (see from 4:00 in the video). When the data points on the chart start moving, Rosling transforms – from a meek, genial professor, to a vibrant, bubbling sportscaster. The time dimension brings the data alive, and Rosling capitalises by bringing urgency in his voice (“ALL the green Latin American countries are moving towards smaller families”), adding emphasis and wonder (But now, Bangladesh — it’s a MIRACLE that happens in the ’80s: the imams start to promote family planning. They move up into that corner.”).

It is a masterful performance, and probably the main reason why people love this talk so much.

Of course, what also works for Professor Rosling is his innate charm and that goofy, 100% genuine demeanour. Wearing crumpled, ill-fitting dresses, he probably breaks every law of attire and ‘presentability’ when public speaking. But the command over his delivery and the unique style more than make up for it.

Having said that, a caveat: As much as one can love this performance, it is not something that everyone can ape. The learning from this performance is not to dress like him or copy his delivery style. The idea is to be yourself – discover your own true style by showcasing your genuine enthusiasm and fascination for the data being presented.

Some other talks

Now that you’ve been initiated into the Hans-Rosling-Fan-Club, here are a few more of his iconic talks:

This was one of the latest, in which he riffs off some old hits like the chimps joke:

And this one was in TED India in 2009:


So, in addition to the factors mentioned earlier (unique data visuals and sportscaster-like delivery), a few more useful tips from his talks:


If you look hard enough you’ll find a few laughs in any data set. For instance in the second talk, when people have to choose among three options, most Swedes get it wrong. A masterstroke was his insight – even if you assign equal probabilities to each option, at least 33% should go to the right one. Most of us would have used the analogy of a random choice between 3 options. But here’s where the good professor was clever, and made an imaginary experiment – of getting chimpanzees in a zoo to pick choices at random (as a small addition to the presentation, I would’ve put a picture of a chimpanzee holding a piece of paper – to visually reinforce the message). That way he could make the absurd yet accurate claim that chimpanzees were “smarter” than the average Swedish citizen/student/professor etc. I love the line in the second talk “because the chimps don’t watch the evening news you know, so they assign choices at random

In your own work too, if you come across such a large gap between perception and reality, it might be a good trick to use, especially when presenting to a large audience. (Needless to say, be careful of not offending the audience though!)

The professor also was not repeating his jokes. For instance, when he was comparing the audience-poll answers to the correct one, he said “You were beaten by the chimps. But it was close. You were three times better than the Swedes, but that’s not enough. You shouldn’t compare yourself to Swedes. You must have higher ambitions in the world

For a later question, when the poor Swedish folks again get it wrong, he thunders “WHO THE HECK is the Professor of Global Health in that country?“, before meekly admitting “Well its me“. Self-deprecation for himself and his country works like a charm to generate laughter.


In another case, when he admits to testing the professors at the Karolinska Institut (who also get it wrong), he emphasises, after a pause “the Institute which hands out the Nobel prize in medicine”. Why is that important? It is a powerful way of making his point – that these guys, who are deciding who should win the most prestigious award in medicine, are unaware of basic health data about the world they live in.


The use of the long analog pointer instead of the standard laser variant was pure genius – and totally goes with his droll personality. Beware though – it is unlikely to work for others who may try it.

A small issue

This may seem like nitpicking, but there is a significant data-visualisation error that creeps in his India TED Talk. Can you spot it in this chart?

Image credit: from Hans Rosling’s TED Talk

You’re right – the Y-axis scale is all messed up. It is a semi-log chart where the Y-axis is set to a logarithmic scale. Without any clear indication however, it is visually very misleading as it gives the impression that China and India will catch up to the US and UK in a very short period of time.

But you know what – let’s cut the Professor some slack. The scale of his achievements dwarfs marginal issues such as these. And leaves us with a memorable legacy.


Dr. Rosling may have left us, but his legacy – of looking at the data in entirety, of not getting swayed by biases and extreme events and most importantly, of using innovative, entertaining techniques for communicating critical data – would live on through the Gapminder Foundation, and everyone who gets inspired by him.

A BSE-30 company (one that’s been awarded by the ICAI for excellence in financial reporting), put out this slide in a recent analyst presentation:

A slide which follows the typical “who-knows-what-could-be-important-so-let’s-show-everything” approach. A slide which has 16 rows and 6 columns – 96 data sets in all. Good luck if you expect the audience to remember even one of them.

You might say, ‘tables are tough to read, a chart is better’ and use the default charting application to come up with this:

That’s not much better is it? Multiple colours, bars, numbers and lines everywhere – what do you want the reader to focus on here?

Even if you simplify and just show the revenue and EBITDA numbers, as below…

… it still retains multiple elements of ‘clutter’. Clutter is any element which exists on the slide but doesn’t add any/adequate value. Let’s identify some of these elements:

Perhaps if we clean up the chart, it’ll become easier to comprehend:

That does look better. But it is still just a couple of data points. What is the overall story we want to tell here? Let’s go back to the P&L table:


Let’s examine some of the changes made in this slide:

So that’s our first example of a ‘slide makeover’ by Story Rules – where we will periodically look at actual corporate slides/presentations (taken from the public domain) and examine how we could improve them.

If you found this example useful, please subscribe for email updates of new blog posts from Story Rules.


Featured image credit: Pixabay 

A leading construction major had this slide in its recent investor presentation:

Looks pretty harmless, eh? Two nice 3-D exploding pies, lots of colour. Let’s see what we can do to make it better.

(A quick primer about the terms: This is a construction company which works on multi-year projects. ‘Order Inflow’ refers to the total amount of new project orders generated in the first half of FY17. The ‘Order Book’ is the total ‘stock’ of orders on the last day of the period. New order inflows keep adding to the order book, while orders ‘executed’ will reduce from the order book)

There are a few issues in the slide that we will try and address:

The lack of a clear message on top is a common issue we’ll encounter: What is it about the ‘Segmental breakup of orders – H1FY17’ that you want me to notice?

The other issue is relating to choice of charts. When it comes to pie-charts, the only reason to be having 2 pies is if you’re having many guests for dinner. Otherwise, when it comes to comparing between two sets of 100% components, it is best to build a stacked bar or column.

Slide makeover

Here’s the revised slide:

So what did we do differently here?

You’ll also notice the following:

  • The stacked column makes it much easier to compare components across the two data sets. Notice a small advantage: the legend is lined up right next to the components and makes it easier to ‘read them’.
  • All chart elements which were not critical are ‘in the background’ in a light grey colour.
  • The takeaway box at the end answers the critical ‘so-what?’ question. The audience may ask “Sure, you have got some data on order inflow and order book, but ‘so what’? How does it impact us as current/potential investors?”. The takeaway makes your point clearly: A changing order-inflow mix clearly indicates that other sectors are showing higher growth and would lead to a more diversified order book in the future, thus de-risking revenue generation.

That was a simple makeover and we’ll be doing many more. If you found it useful, you know the drill – subscribe to the Story Rules blog update. 🙂


Featured image credit: By Evan-Amos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons