Properly communicating a message with data is not always easy.
If it were, everyone could do it, and there wouldn't be questions at the end of presentations, discussions around the best way to tweak a scatterplot, or results to a Google Images search for chartjunk.
Much has been written on the subject of how to properly communicate data, and there's a real art and science to it. Many fail to appreciate this, which can result in confusion - about the message trying to be conveyed, the salience of various features of the data being presented, or why the information is important.
There's a lot to be said on the subject, but keep these 5 tips for communicating data in mind, and when you have a data-driven message to get across they will help you do so with clarity and precision.
1. Plan: Know What You Want to Say
Sometimes all the analysis will have already been done, and so you just need to think about how to best present it to get your message across. What variables and relationships are most important? What is the best way to depict them? Why oh why am I using aquamarine in this bar chart?
Other times figuring out your exact message will come together with the analysis, and so you would instead start with a question you want to answer, like "How effective has our new marketing initiative been over the last quarter?" or "How has the size of the middle class in Canada in changed over the last 15 years?"
2. Prepare: Be Ready
As I reflected upon in a previous post, sometimes people fail to recognize that just getting the information and putting in the proper shape is a part of the process that should not be overlooked.
Before you even begin to think about communicating your message, you need to make sure you have the data available and in a format (or formats) that you can comfortably work with. You should also consider what data are most important and how to treat them accordingly, and if any other sets should also be included (see Tip #3).
On this same note, before launching into the analysis or creation of the end product (article, report, slidedeck, etc.) it is important to think about if you are ready in terms of tools. What software packages or analysis environments will be used for the data analysis? What applications will be used to create the end product, whatever it may be?
3. Frame: Context is Key
Another important tip to remember is to properly frame your message by placing the data in context.
Failure to follow this tip results in simply serving up information - data are being presented but there is no message being communicated. Context answers the questions "Why is this important?" and "How is this related to x, y, and z?"
Placing the data in context allows the audience to see how it relates to other data, and why it matters. Do not forget about context, or you will have people asking why they should care about what you are trying to communicate.
4. Simplify: Less is More
Let me be incredibly clear about this: more is not always better. If you want to get a message across, simpler is better. Incredibly complicated relationships can be discussed, depicted, and dissected, but that doesn't mean that your article, slide or infographic needs to look like a spreadsheet application threw up all over it.
Keep the amount of information that your audience has to process at a time (per slide, paragraph, or figure) small. Relationships and changes should be clearly depicted and key differences highlighted with differences in colour or shape. The amount of text on graphs should be kept to a minimum, and if this is not possible, then perhaps the information needs to be thought about being presented in a different way.
The last thing you want to do is muddle your message with information overload and end up confusing your audience.
5. Engage: It's Useless If No One Knows It Exists
In the world of business, when creating a report or presenting some data, the audience is often predefined. You create a slidedeck to present to the VP and if your data are communicated properly (because you've followed Tips 1-4, wink wink) then all is well and you're on your way to the top. You email the report and it gets delivered to the client and your dazzling data analysis skills make them an even greater believer in your product. And so on.
In other cases though, like when writing a blog post or news article, your audience may not be picked out for you and so it's also your job to engage them. All your dazzling data analysis and beautiful visual work will contribute nothing if no eyeballs are laid upon it. For this reason, another tip to remember is to engage interested parties, either directly or indirectly through channels such as social media.
What Are You Waiting For?
So there are your Top 5 Tips for Communicating Data. Like I said, it's not always easy. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll ask yourself the right questions before you give all the answers.
Go. Explore the data, and be great. Happy communicating.