get the details right

First, announcements: There are still a few spots left in upcoming public workshops in NYC and LA: click here for details. Also, the DATA VIZ challenge is underway, with entries due 8/12, details here. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Get the details right. It's a simple (and perhaps obvious) tip, but so very important. Let me recap a situation I recently witnessed when the details weren't right and the resulting repercussions.

I was observing a vendor presentation that preceded my workshop at a client offsite. I enjoy watching others present and considering what makes the good ones effective and what makes the not-so-great-ones not-so-great. In this case, two guys were presenting. There were things to learn from each.

The first was charismatic and easily held the audience's attention. What made him effective? He had a booming voice that he inflected to emphasize the important parts of what he said. His gestures were natural. He seemed at ease. His confident voiceover made me feel like he knew his stuff. It was when he passed the stage over to the second presenter that things turned south.

The first slide that presenter number two flipped to misspelled the client's name in the headline.

As if this weren't bad enough, the leader of the client group actually spoke up to point out the error. If anyone in the audience had their attention elsewhere and might have otherwise missed it, this ensured everyone was aware of the mistake.

The presenter was obviously embarrassed. Unfortunately, there was little he could to to regain the credibility this oversight lost him. Personally, my thought was, if he can't consistently spell the client's name correctly, what does that say about the attention to detail that he paid to the research he had done that he was working to convince them of? Fairly or unfairly, an audience might assume it doesn't mean good things. They may think this quietly. Or they may go on the offensive to try to determine whether the presenter knows his stuff. This group did the latter.

From this point on, the audience - who had asked only two questions during the prior presenter's 20 minutes of talking - peppered this second presenter with inquiries. Very detailed questions. One after another. They picked him apart. It wasn't pretty.

A couple lessons can be learned from this. First, definitely spell check anything you're going to put in front of your audience, particularly if it's going to be written in 40-point font. And the meta-point of this post: details matter. Get them right.

This was a particularly egregious error (especially with the leader pointing it out). More commonly, when it comes to data visualization, the issues I encounter looking at client work are numeric. For example, percents that don't sum to 100% when they should, numbers that should be exactly the same in multiple places in the same deck (or on the same slide or graph!) being different, or math that just doesn't work out the way it should. If you show math, make sure it's correct. All it takes is one discerning member of your audience to realize the numbers don't add up, which can call into question your credibility in the same way that unfortunate presenter number two had happen to him. Use spell check. Double check your math. Have a friend or colleague review your work for a second set of eyes to catch things you might miss.

Whether a full presentation or a single data visualization: don't undercut your credibility with your audience with silly mistakes. Details matter. Make sure you get them right!