It’s no secret that most people find spreadsheets boring. The continual columns, rows, and cells of what seems to be never-ending numbers are really only interesting to a certain set of people. Most people view spreadsheets with little interest. And it’s not surprising when their eyes glaze over.

Even when the spreadsheets show important information, the core message is hidden somewhere in all of the numbers. The truth within the message is lost.

Data is important and the way to transition it to be understood is by using images and colors that convey exactly what you want to say in a short amount of time.

The key aspect to remember is that you want your audience to feel as though they are participating in the presentation and the best way to do that is with data visualization.

Key Facts to Consider:

  1. Shapes and Colors are Seen Before Speech
  2. Condense Numbers Into Pictures
  3. Use Data Visualization for a Chronological Journey
  4. Data Visualization is Artful and Humorous
  5. Shift from Numbers to Something Memorable
  1. People Learn Shapes and Colors Before Speech

As children, we begin life recognizing shapes, colors, and sizes before we learn to speak or even count. This initial identification is part of the main portion of the human brain and we use this ability to collect information and process it in a fast and easy method. We are not only attracted to images and colors but somewhat ‘hardwired’ to glean data from pictures that would take hours of words or text.

When we tap into this crucial area of comprehension by taking the important numbers and converting them into the shapes, designs, and colors we can more easily understand the details without the boring stats. We can then craft a picture that makes a statement, elevates the areas that are most useful, and tell the story.

2. Condense Numbers Into Pictures

Information within spreadsheets can often lead to profound insights. But it’s regularly buried with all of the other numbers. Even the most experienced individual may find it time consuming and grueling to have to dig through the vast amounts of data.  

The most important benefit when you condense numbers into pictures through data visualization is that it saves time. The images not only convey the message but also eliminate the time that’s required to analyze numbers.

Take the example of the NCAA College Football Map:

This interactive map is based on data pulled from Facebook ‘likes’ for eighty four college teams by zip code. When you view the map it brings up the intriguing information that not all fans route for the teams within their state or those that they consider to be ‘home teams’.

This data would be hidden in a spreadsheet, and yet the data visualization brings it to the forefront rather quickly.

3. Use Data Visualization for A Chronological Journey

Instances abound where a presenter must pave a chronological path. This assists the viewers in understanding the past, so they can realize the present and then comprehend the changes and variations for the future. Through data visualization, the story provides a powerful message that allows plans, goals, and mission statements to develop.

But caution should be taken in creating the image so that there isn’t too much overwhelming information. It’s natural to get excited and want to include lots of information. But you can lose the viewer when you do so.

In the roadmap above, the visualization was trying incorporate the various popular technology paths. But it takes too long to figure out.

Use a logical progression of information that’s easily viewed, understood, and followed. Colors can be used to highlight important areas as well as limiting the color choices to reflect specific information. This chronological data visualization is easier to interpret due to color selections that reflect the rise and fall of various sectors.  

4. Data Visualization Can Be Artful or Humorous

People remember presentations that stand out from the status quo. Using imagery, we have the opportunity to create just about anything. This allows us to tap into the part of our brain that’s  artistic and fun. But in our desire to ‘wow’ the crowd, we should focus on both the beauty and the higher-level story. Using humor can be a slippery slope. It requires common sense to make sure that your content stays classy.

JE Thorp’s Word Frequency is exquisitely designed. Unfortunately as beautiful as it is, the message is lost. However, the Pythonistas on Twitter makes use of color and patterns that appeal to the eye and yet convey the message clearly.

Drugs and drug addiction is not a topic that should be dealt with lightly. Using funky designs and fonts along with colors may make it memorable. But it reduces the importance of the message and the issue at-hand.

A topic such as ‘The Logistics of Santa Claus’ can be addressed with humor and fun. It’s an enjoyable topic after all. And creating a funny data visualization allows the viewer to engage with the content.

4. Shift from Numbers to Something Memorable

Michelle Borkin, an assistant professor in computer science at Northeastern University has studied what takes the guesswork out of presenting data in a way that is memorable. In her research: Beyond Memorability: Visualization Recognition and Recall, she included a number of critical key findings. She shared some of these insights in an interview with John Wihbey, teacher of data journalism in the Media Innovation program at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism:

  1. Visualizations that are memorable “at-a-glance” are often the most memorable even after longer viewings — i.e., there is something instant, enduring and intrinsically powerful about memorable graphics
  2. Titles and text are key elements in a visualization and help recall the message
  3. Human recognizable objects (e.g. pictograms) help with the recognition or recall of a visualization
  4. Redundancy helps with visualization recall and understanding

The total number of mentions of specific visualization elements in the participant-generated recall text descriptions. Credit: Borkin et al.

The discoveries in Borkin’s research included the importance of titles and text as key elements for good visualization. The experiments demonstrate that people remember more efficiently and accurately when the data visualizations had effective text and title annotations.

Image credit: Intel Free Press

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