Bad Data Visualization is Expensive: How to Present Clear and Effective Data
Want to hear a dirty little secret I learned while consulting with Fortune 500s? There were people inside this company that knew the metrics they were responsible for were on a downward trend – so they purposefully avoided showing the data clearly. They kept the data buried in complicated spreadsheets and posted a screenshot of dense data tables on the slides they showed in their weekly operational review meetings. They knew from experience how that meeting would go. Can you picture it?
You probably can, because you’ve been in those meetings looking at confusing, jumbled slides like this:
Your colleague leans over to ask you “what is this even saying?” You put your glasses on to better squint at the tiny font. Now you can see the numbers, but you don’t know what to make of all of them. The colleague sitting on the other side of you has already checked out and moved on to answering emails on her phone. The boss asks the presenter to walk her through the data and it takes the presenter 15 minutes to explain the various metrics on the slide and how the numbers were calculated. And you still haven’t gotten to the purpose of the meeting – which is to use the data to take some action.
You can probably relate to this scenario, even if you and your colleagues are not trying to obfuscate reality in a sea of numbers. The culture in many organizations is to slap a table of numbers on the slide and call it a day. But that method of presenting is incredibly expensive.
First, bad data displays waste time. In the scenario above, simply digesting this slide took a total of about 20 minutes. If we calculated the hourly rate of the executives sitting in that meeting once a week, we are talking about thousands of dollars wasted each year just in trying to decipher spreadsheets on slides.
Secondly, the longer we spend deciphering the slide, the more we put off crucial decision-making that is supposed to be informed by the data. We delay the release of new products, we continue inefficient processes, and we are slower to implement change when we spend our precious time on decoding, rather than deciding.
Finally, perpetuating a company culture that allows employees to just show numbers creates inertia. When we prioritize showing insights, rather than tables, we create a culture that respects one another’s time and attention, putting actionable decisions at the top of the priority list.
As I discuss in detail in my latest book, Effective Data Visualization, it is embarrassingly easy to present data clearly, once you know how to get started. You don’t even have to leave Excel or PowerPoint to do it. The first step is to establish a new expectation that presenters will know their data and (bravely) state their insights at the top of the slide. Then display the visual evidence that supports that insight (and only that data – ditching the numbers that aren’t essential to this particular insight). The answer to “what are we looking at here?” will be evident almost immediately.
Of course, you’ll want the table of numbers as backup, in case anyone asks you for details. But the spreadsheet on a slide is never what people first want to see. When we visualize our data effectively, our conversations are clearer, our decision-making is more efficient, people are happier – and all of that is worth its weight in gold.
ABOUT DR. STEPHANIE EVERGREEN
Dr. Stephanie Evergreen is an internationally-recognized speaker, designer, and researcher. She is best known for bringing a research-based approach for better communication through more effective graphs, slides and reports.
Dr. Evergreen has trained researchers worldwide at major companies including Mastercard, Verizon, Head Start, American Institutes for Research, Rockefeller Foundation, Brookings Institute and the United Nations. She writes a popular blog on data presentation at StephanieEvergreen.com. Her two books on designing high-impact graphs, slideshows, and reports both hit #1 on Amazon bestseller lists weeks before they were even released. This Spring Dr. Evergreen is publishing the second edition of one of those bestsellers and a brand new sketchbook with templates for making infographics and dashboards.