Numbers tell compelling stories.
No matter your field or job title, when you’re presenting charts and tables to an audience, you have two primary objectives: you assess your strengths and weaknesses. On the web especially, data analytics is a field where art meets science for creativity to flourish.
(1) You want to deliver a strong message and
(2) You want to communicate as much information in as little time as possible
Unfortunately, people make a heck of a lot of mistakes that can inadvertently hurt these two goals. We don’t realize when we do it either. After hours of staring at our spreadsheets and regressions, the numbers make sense to us, so we’re inclined to think that the details are intuitive.
But the thing is, they aren’t. Even though I’ve been through a data-driven master’s program, I still have trouble following many quantitative presentations. Despite my eye for numbers, my mind is human. At first glance, a spreadsheet with the metrics 2.4843298 and 1,123% just aren’t intuitive. I spend my time trying to decipher the meaning behind these numbers instead of focusing on that split-second main point. When I look at a projected Excel spreadsheet, I’m unsure of where my eyes should go, and while I’m listening to what you’re saying, my senses are all over the place.
When I see numbers, I need clarity, and chances are that your audience needs it too.
No matter how complex your analysis is, there are plenty of strategies for keeping your data streamlined and simplified. Here are some helpful tips that I’d like to share:
Outline the main points and big picture.
If you’re working with data, your goal is to communicate something. Before you launch into creating your tables, charts, and graphs, know exactly what you want to emphasize. Are you trying to show growth over time, or are you trying to make comparisons between groups? How will your data support your one-sentence takeaway? Knowing what you want to emphasize is key to how you ultimately organize your data.
Please round your numbers.
Decimals and fractions make little sense to the human eye. Imagine that you’re trying to describe change over time. If you’re trying to make an instantly strong point, you’re better off expressing a growth of approximately 2.5, as opposed to a growth of 2.4888889. To the human eye, one makes a lot more sense than the other.
Use symbols to humanize data.
Far too often, I see percentages without percent symbols and revenue data without dollar signs. I see numbers without commas, and figures with way too many decimal places. Rather than listen to the speaker, my mind is trying to fill in the blanks for what I’m not seeing. Remember that symbols are a communication tool and are important for making your point strong. Take the extra five minutes to format your data with them.
Remember that Excel is a limited presentation tool.
Sometimes, you just can’t get around presenting your data in Excel. That’s fine, but keep in mind that Excel wasn’t designed for presentations. Even if you’re sharing a spreadsheet, you need to keep in mind that you’re communicating with an audience. At the very least, try to make your fonts larger, and use colors to emphasize key values. Get creative with your visual cues.
Slow down and walk your readers through the numbers. Take a moment or two to let them reflect, and use visual aids (like your finger or a laser pointer) to guide them along. From start to finish, explain where my eyes need to be. Walk me through your charts and tables, and tell me what the main point should be.
Label axes, cite data sources, and explain your assumptions.
This peripheral information is important to include in written form, even when you explain it. You need to orient your readers and audiences with enough context and background information to follow what you’re explaining.
Know your audience.
Strike a balance between technical, streamlined, and simplified. Appease a diverse audience by incorporating elements of all three. Numbers have different meanings for different people, and understanding this fact can make your message stronger.