Monday, March 23, 2015

the biggest bang for your buck

After trekking through some surprise springtime snow, I had a great public workshop in Chicago this afternoon (want to join in the fun? see here for upcoming sessions, including workshops in London, Dallas, and San Francisco). Discussion and Q&A are some of my favorite components of the workshops, because we can tackle specific challenges that folks are facing. There are always great questions and today was no exception. There was one super practical question that stuck with me that I thought I'd share more widely here.

You've likely heard of the 80-20 rule. Basically, in business it's the idea that you can put in 20% of the effort and get 80% of the result (and avoid the remaining 80% of work that only yields an additional 20% of result). The question was: "how can we apply the 80-20 rule to what we've learned today?" In other words, out of all of the meaty content we've covered, where should you start when it comes to having the greatest impact? Or, as I'll paraphrase it - where should you focus your energy to get the biggest bang for your data visualization buck?

My answer? There are two easy things you can start doing today to have greater impact when it comes to communicating with data:

First: always tell a story. Think about what you want your audience to get out of every graph you show and STATE IT IN WORDS. Doing this simple step goes an amazingly long way when it comes to helping make the data you show make sense to your audience. When you put the takeaway into words, your audience knows what they are meant to look for in the visual. We spend the hands-on portion of the workshop looking at a number of real-world example graphs. All made by well-intending people. And the question that comes up again and again and again is: what point are they trying to make? Don't make your audience work to figure this out - state it for them!

Second: use color sparingly and strategically. Rethink how you use color - don't use it to make your graph colorful. When used sparingly, color is your single biggest tool for drawing your audience's attention to where you want them to pay it. I often start by making every single component of my visual light grey, pushing it all to the background - the data, the axes, the titles. This forces me to think about where I want to draw attention and use color intentionally and with purpose to emphasize those pieces of the visual.

Pair these two things - state your story in words and use color strategically to highlight where you want your audience to look - and you'll have gone a long way down the path of communicating effectively with data. Bonus: you don't even need crazy technical skills to do either of these things.

Thanks, Bill, for the thought-provoking question!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

annotate with text

In keeping with my prior post, I'm sharing another "most-photographed slide" from my recent workshops.


My voiceover typically sounds something like this:

When it comes to storytelling with data, one very important component of stories is words. There are some words that absolutely have to be there: every graph needs a title and every axis needs a title. This is true no matter how clear you think it is from context. The only exception that comes to mind is if your x-axis is January, February, March, etc., you probably don't need to title it "months of the year." You probably should make it clear what year it is. Any other axis needs a title. Label directly so your audience doesn't question what they are looking at.

Don't assume that two different people looking at the same data visualization will walk away with the same conclusion. Which means, if there is a conclusion you want your audience to reach, you should state it in words. Use what we know about preattentive attributes to make those words stand out: make them big, leverage color and/or bold, and put them in high priority places on the page like the top.

Speaking of which, that title bar - stories have words: annotate with text - is precious real estate. It is the first thing your audience encounters when they see your screen or your page, so make it count. Use this space for active titles, not descriptive titles. If there is a key takeaway for your audience, put it there so they don't miss it. It will also help set up the content that is to follow on the rest of the page.

When you are communicating with data, there are some words that usually need to be there: data source, as of date, and perhaps notes on assumptions or your methodology. These are necessary words but they don't need to cry out for attention. Use what we know about preattentive attributes to emphasize the important parts of your visual and also to de-emphasize less critical pieces. Footnotes can be small, the text can be grey, and they can be in lower priority places on the page like the bottom.

Use words to title, label, and explain; they help make your data visualizations accessible!

To see this and other storytelling with data lessons firsthand, attend one of my upcoming public workshops.

Monday, February 23, 2015

consulting for context

Upcoming workshops: Details have been set for my Chicago public workshop - it will be on 3/23 and you can register here. I'm offering a full day workshop in London as a pre-conference session ahead of Tucana Global's People Analytics conference in April (it can be registered for separately from the conference and content will be made relevant to non-HR as well), details here. I'm also in the planning stages of a public workshop in Dallas in early May - to be notified when it is scheduled or suggest/volunteer a venue, click here.

Speaking of workshops, I've conducted a lot of them over the past three weeks. It takes nearly all of my fingers to count them. I've packed so many into a small time period that I've started to observe some interesting patterns across them. I'll tell you about one such pattern today.

I tend to begin each workshop by asking attendees to do something that I think may make some people feel uncomfortable: take whatever electronic devices are within their reach and place them slightly out of reach. (There is little that is more distracting in a shared learning environment than someone typing on their laptop or texting on their phone!) 

Still, somehow, people end up with phones in their hands.

To my amusement, however, for the most part they don't appear to be using their phones to check their email or update their Facebook status, but rather to snap a quick pic of the slide I'm discussing. This is one use of an electronic device in my workshops that I might be willing to condone! The pattern I referred to earlier is that it seems to be the same handful of slides that prompt said picture-taking. I believe this is an indication of the usefulness of the content, so thought I'd share some of that content with you here.

One popular slide is about consulting for context and lists the following thought-starters:
  • What background information is relevant/essential?
  • Who is your audience? What do you know about them?
  • What biases does your audience have that might make them resistant to your message?
  • What data is available that would help strengthen your case? Is your audience familiar with this data, or is it new?
  • What would a successful outcome look like?
  • If you only had one minute or a single sentence to tell your audience what they need to know, what would you say?
My voice-over of this slide usually sounds something like the following. Often, when you are putting together a communication, it is at the request of someone else: a client, a stakeholder, or a manager. Sometimes, the person requesting the work has things in their head that are important to understand that they may not think to say out loud. The above are some questions you can use when that's the case, to try to tease the full context out of the person requesting to make sure you have a robust understanding of the need to communicate before you start building the actual communication. Being clear on the context up front can drastically reduce iterations down the road.

I find the last two questions in particular can be really useful for getting at the main message you want to communicate. I often use these when I'm working with clients to get clarity on what they want to say. What would a successful outcome look like? Or, if you had a really finite amount of time or number of words to say what you need to say: what would that sound like?

I use this to set up the concepts that are typically covered next (that I've blogged about here previously): the 3-minute story and Big Idea.

Interested in other parts of my workshops that are prompting people to photograph what they see? Stay tuned here and I'll highlight some others in upcoming posts!