Monthly Archives: Jul 2021

How to speed up information decoding by simple data visualization tricks – the story of one chart.

How many times have you struggled to quickly understand what a chart is presenting? It is something that I often experience in media when reading articles or watch some statistics on TV. Sometimes is extremely hard for me to make sense of what I see, just because I am not the subject matter expert and those data at a glance do not seem familiar. And let face it, I am a data person. What must feel ordinary people, who do not work with data on a daily basis and are not highly data literate?

This post is inspired by data visualisations in the article that I have read recently about the employment situation in the UK. You can find the link to the paper at the bottom of the post.

We are going to focus on three easy to introduce improvements to make any chart more readable, impactful, and thoughtful:

  • Additional Axis labelling
  • Annotation
  • Preattentive Attributes                

As an example, we will improve the below chart that presents changes over years of staff availability index.

Additional Axis Labelling

I am not familiar with the staff availability index. From the title and footer of the chart, I understand that the higher, the better. However, that information could be served on the plate. Based on my experience, I can see an easy fix for such a case that speed up the cognitive work of my brain. Most of the time, when some charts are presented, they present some changes over time or comparisons between two or more phenomena. 

In this case, adding small arrows to the Y-axis and additional words describing axis directions give much more sense to the chart and improve the audience experience. Now the chart presents not only changes over time but informs the expected direction of change.

Annotation

There is a common myth that “Data speaks for itself”. No data can speak because it does not have a tongue. The responsibility of proper understanding of the message lies on the messenger side.  Another quick win is adding more text to the chart itself. Additional description or insight help people to process information more effectively and, thanks to visual presentation, make it easier to remember. 

I have added a sentence from the article next to the point that I have wanted to emphasise. The rich text pays attention to the audience eyes, and the soft grey line directs to the specific point on the chart.

Preattentive attributes

Each object on Earth has properties like shape, colour, size, position. This is what we notice without using conscious effort, and because we do not involve too much conscious effort, we must take advantage of it to decoding information faster. Thanks to them, we can guide the audience eyes through our data visualisation and point them exactly where we want.

Introducing a small red dot is a true game-changer for presenting information on the below chart. We can get this effect by taking off the line chart colour and add to the chart another object with a different shape (circle), size (the circle is significantly thicker than the line), and by adding contrasting colour (the red one). At the final stage, let us analyse our eyes movement. First of all, our eyes start looking at the chart with the title (that is why do not forget about titles! Never!). Then they go straight to the red dot. Just next to the red dot is an insight that explains that point.  Next, they track the line chart and finally look at additional Y-axis labelling. Now, our brain, after collecting all this information, can process them and make sense of those data.

I would recommend those three easy to remember and use tricks to uplift any data visualisation that will improve your audience experience.

The link to the article:

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jul/08/uk-employers-struggle-with-worst-labour-shortage-since-1997?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Other

Storytelling structures that support presenting data.

Key points:

  1. How to structure your presentation to keep the audience attention?
  2. What to avoid to not overwhelm people?

Many professionals struggle with conveying their messages in an effective way. They often fail to convince others with their ideas or perspective. Most of the time the reason why it happens is poor delivery of the presentation. It is a hard job to present a topic in a logical way that does not confuse the audience. The second challenge is to create an engaging and exciting experience for the audience. Things even get more complicated when you use numbers and figures in your presentations.

Why do you need storytelling to present data?

The simple answer is because numbers are too abstract for the human’s brain. Presenting or talking about numbers is not such a piece of cake. Thousand years ago, nobody had to analyse sales trends or try to understand what influences shipments delivery.  Data analysis and data visualization is relatively a new demand, and a lot of people struggle to gain this new skill.

If you do not weave your facts and charts into a story framework, you overwhelm your audience and lose their attention, and in the end, you fail with your ideas.

Since the beginning of humanity, people are storytellers. For ages, they have been passing on the information by narration about incredible actions of heroes, distanced journeys, and the most important, gained wisdom and knowledge through those stories. For humans, the narration is the most appealing and easy way to consume and remember information. The message “Do not eat berries” sounds flat compared to “Do not eat berries because half of the neighbourhood tribe died after ate them.”  And what are the most important, stories ignite emotions which drive people to take decisions and actions more often than logical facts and data (if you doubt this, check the latest studies of behavioral economists)

The Basics

I bet that 100% of corporate presentations have the purpose of influencing people to take action or decisions. Most of the time we:

  1. solve some problems, and we need allies and sponsors to support our ideas,
  2. break a status quo and introduce a change in the organisation’s business model to be ready for future challenges, and we must convince and inspire others,
  3. pass information needed to make strategic decisions

So, first, you must decide the purpose of the presentation. However, sometimes I have an impression that some speakers present data analysis for themselves. They just want to boost what they found, but they lack the audience perspective.  There is the truth worth remembering: people are interested only in themselves.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

Dale Carnegie

When you prepare your presentation, focus on benefits for the audience. The simply Five Ws + How technique can support you in this task.

  1. Who – think about people to whom you are going to present.
  2. Why – think what kind of questions they can have or ask them directly, and try to give them answers or feed them with insights that help to find them, on the other hand, do not forget about what you want to achieve.
  3. What – now when you know their perspective, you can start analysing data, and create a storyline.
  4. How – this is a time to start thinking about the structure of the presentation and the result which you want to achieve.
  5. When – at which time you will deliver a presentation is important as well, check out a corporate schedule, if the important event is coming shortly, it would be better to hurry up.
  6. Where – make sure that place is convenient for your audience, there is enough room for everyone, and the place has required equipment.

Let us move further to HOW to design a presentation as a true storyteller.

Storytelling structures

Every good story has three points to cover. Every book, drama or movie follow that simple structure. Nevertheless, how and when you cover will change a narration.

  • Conflict – it is a background for the story: a current situation or state, past actions and discomfort it makes.
  • Climax – it is an essence of the story, critical point, the whole story is told to convey this one message.
  • Resolution – a new desired state or actions need to be taken.

Let us check how we can juggle these points to get different narrations.

Storytelling techniques good for presenting data.

When you present something to the audience, you want to make them listen to you. Several techniques help you achieve this experience.

The Narrative ARC

One of the most common structures is the arc. It is a very logical structure with straightforward, easy to follow stages for the presenter and the audience. It is the extension of the conflict, climax and resolution. It follows:

  1. Exposition – this is a background, a current state, a time snapshot, circumstances. All of these establish the context of your story. It is an excellent place to reveal all possible questions which your audience can have.
  2. Rising action – in this point, a conflict is presented. It can be an unsatisfied situation or result. At this stage, to add some tensions, describe some risks and threats to the audience if the status quo remains, and future possibilities which you will cover further.
  3. Climax – the critical or turning point, the undoubted evidence that some decision must be made. It can be your main findings.
  4. Falling action – at this stage, different conflict solutions can be presented with pros and cons.
  5. Resolution – final recommendation, needed decisions, actions or solutions.

In media res

This structure immediately moves the audience to the essence of your message. This strategy has on purpose to catch the audience attention and engagement. The structure follows:

  1. Climax – the critical or turning point, the undoubted evidence that some decision must be made. It can be your main findings. At this stage, to add some tensions, describe some risks and threats to the audience if the status quo remains, and future possibilities which you will cover further.
  2. Conflict – this is a background, a current state, a time snapshot, circumstances. All of these establish the context of your story. Reveal at this stage all possible questions which your audience can have.
  3. Resolution – final recommendation, needed decisions, actions or solutions.

This structure can be highly effective when presenting to senior managers or executives who are always in a hurry and like to go straight to the point, and you need some decisions or actions from their side.

Dos and Don’ts

Last but not least. You can tell the best story, but numbers need to be shown. What is more, people are visual creatures. For most of us, to understand means to see. Designing the presentation, consider the below tips to avoid overwhelming the audience.

  • Too many charts on one slide – it is better to unfold visuals to more slides instead of clutter one slide with too many elements. A thoughtfully adjusted number of slides will support your story and lead the audience step by step.
  • Too much text – the same situation is with text. Good presentation is economical in text. Just a few of the most important words, insights or phrases. So do not expose your audience to the wall of the text.
  • Too small fonts – this one relates to the previous. If you do not have the wall of text on your slide, there is room for readable size fonts. To adjust fonts size, consider the conference room size. The fonts for the axis should be at least 12.
  • Too small visuals – similar with fonts size. When using visuals, make sure that these are big enough to be visible to the audience
  • Unreadable fonts – some font types are hard to read. They look exciting, but in the end, they are slowing down the decoding information process. Stick to simply fonts like Calibri, Arial, Verdana.
  • Keep a short harmonic colour palette – colours evoke emotions (but this is a topic for another post). Build a colour palette around five to seven colours and stick to it in your presentation. Decide which colour would be the main one and cover 60% of the presentation deck. The following 30% leave for secondary colour, and the rest 10% for colour, which will be used for highlighting the most critical information.
  • Keep agenda visible – save a place on the slide for displaying agenda. It can be at the bottom of the slide, on the side or on the top. The audience is provided with information in which part of the presentation they are right now.
  • Do not add page number – if you are going to display 50 slides, it is better to keep it secret 😊
  • Use grid – the human eye does not like asymmetry. The grid can help you align all objects with themselves and keep a clean and orderly layout of slides.