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). 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!