We live in a data-driven world. However, it’s one of those Dickensian dilemmas—the best of times and the worst of times. The best part is pretty obvious. We have more information literally at our fingertips than ever before.
This is due in large part to the fact that all of us now have a tiny computer in our pocket that’s more powerful than what the astronauts took with them to the moon.
As a result, we’ve got data on everything—from how much we’re spending each month broken out by expense category to how many calories you have left for the day if you want to keep those pesky five pounds off (and I do).
At work, this means we’re now able to quantify everything—from finance and marketing to productivity and team health. This abundance of information means that more of us are regularly sharing data. And it also means more of us are looking at data from others more often as well. Now we get to the worst of times side of the ledger.
We’ve been given tools to help us gather and report on data. But these apps aren’t always the best at transforming what you’re sharing into a coherent story that’s easily understood. We all know that Death by PowerPoint is common but data can be an accessory in that murder.
To keep your audience engaged in the data you’re sharing, follow these four simple tips.
1. Bars and Lines Are Common for a Reason
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the first data visualization you ever saw was a simple bar graph of colored squares in elementary school math. I know mine was. Maybe it’s because of this elementary association but we tend to look past bars and lines in favor of cool waterfalls and sexy donut charts.
However, this attraction to the advanced and trendy ignores the fact that bars and lines are still the most-used graphs. Instead of running away from this, we should embrace it. If these charts are most used, by using them ourselves it makes our data more accessible to a wider range of audiences. Remember, not everyone has the same skill level or experience with your data as you do.
Plus, bars and lines work for a simple reason. Our eyes instinctively follow the endpoints of the bars and lines. It’s easy for us to make sense of them. Use this familiarity in your favor.
2. Declutter Your Data
When it comes to data, we need to be as focused on visual clutter as we are on the clutter around the house. A simple definition of visual clutter is that it’s information that takes up space but doesn’t add value. Using this as your mantra, go through your charts and graphs eliminating those little extras that add up.
Our feature-rich tools love to make things 3-D with bold borders and heavy gridlines by default. To keep your audience focused on what you want them to focus on, you need to simplify what they’re looking at. Eliminate everything that takes up space and doesn’t add value. 3-D is especially problematic as it can make some segments look bigger than they actually are.
It can sound counterintuitive when talking about all of this data, but less is more. Focus on your story and move anything that doesn’t contribute to it to the background.
3. Use Color Sparingly and Strategically
Even color can become clutter. Not to drag the data visualization tools that we rely on too much (thank you Microsoft, Google, etc.) but left to their own devices, these apps will garnish your charts and graphs with every color in the rainbow. At the software level, this makes sense—these are different data sets. They should be different colors.
However, as a communicator, you have a point that you want to make. Not all data are created equally. For example, you might be showcasing your company’s performance relative to your four competitors in the marketplace. If the point of your presentation is to evaluate your company’s performance, use color accordingly by using a warm color for your company’s data.
Colors like red and orange are great for directing focus as they appear to advance toward the audience. You can then make your competitors a cool color like blue or even gray so that they recede to the background. You might even go as far as making them all the same cool color.
Good as it is, your software will never know your data as well as you do. Use color sparingly and strategically to direct your audience’s attention and increase comprehension.
4. Words Matter (Even with Data)
We tend to keep words and data pretty siloed. This too starts early in our academic career. We have language arts classes where we learn to read and write and math classes where we learn how to work with numbers. These silos continue into the world of work.
When it comes to editing text, we focus on our informational slides (or at least we should). But when it comes to data, we clutter up our axis labels, legends, and, especially our headlines. Instead of defaulting to the basic chart title, take this a step further by formatting this as a headline illustrating the takeaway from the data. This simple editing transforms your chart heading from Q4 Sales by State to Sales by State Increased 34% YOY. With data you need to remember the Aristotelian advice: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”
To that end, sometimes the best visual isn’t even a chart or graph. If you have a simple point to make, go with simple text on a slide. For example, you might have bars showing that last year we sold 183 widgets, and this year we’ve sold 387. You could make your audience do the math from the bars or you could replace all the data with simple text, big and bold—Widget Sales Increased 111%. Another tip with words and numbers? Always be specific (111%) rather than general (“more than doubled”). Specificity stands out.
And standing out is what we’re fighting to do. Even when it comes to data. Especially when it comes to data. We’re looking at more quantitative information on a daily basis than in previous generations. Note, I say looking at. It’s not clear that we’re all actually understanding what we’re looking at.
Take these extra steps in ensuring that your audience understands and remembers the data you share. Does this take extra time? At first but eventually, these simple choices and decluttering reminders will be second nature.
And, in the end, it costs you time to save your audience time. But if it’s the difference between overwhelming them with data they don’t understand and sharing your data story effectively, then it’s time well spent.