In this golden age of big data, smart corporations are taking advantage of the massive amount of data by using insights to make decisions and direct strategies. As a result, the ability to present this data in a comprehensive and appealing way is a crucial skill to have in one’s arsenal.

Enter data visualization — a tool used to help people visualize large chunks of data that’s quickly becoming ubiquitous in excellent presentations. Yet, like any other tool, use it carelessly and it won’t serve its purpose.

One thing’s certain: a good visualization simplifies complex data by telling a story and giving meaning to numbers, in order to facilitate decision-making. Regardless of your field of expertise, there are some universal tips to bear in mind when visualizing data.

Figure out your best tool

Does the data present best in a bar chart, a line graph, a pie chart, or other type of visualization? Consider whether a layman reading the data for the first time would understand the insights quickly in the format you’ve chosen.

For example, if you wish to show a steady increase in GPA across five graduating classes, a line graph might work best, whereas showing the percentage of students in a class with a GPA of more than 3.0 works better with a pie chart.

One way to figure out the best fit for your data is to ask yourself if the graph is easy to understand because of the way you’ve presented the data. Good data presentation should be foolproof.

Keep it simple

Always bear in mind the end goal by reminding yourself why you are presenting this particular dataset and what you want audiences to get from it.

Every element used should be intentional and serve to simplify the data. Eliminate redundancies and distractions. For example, icons or pictures are unnecessary if color-coding the different bars on a bar chart sufficiently bring across the message. Likewise, ditch the fancy 3D pie chart if a flat image conveys the same intention.

Use imagery to support your message

A singular impactful image can do more than endless tables and charts, no matter how clean the latter is presented. Infographics help transform the data, charts and insights into an engaging story, making complex data easy to understand and visually appealing. They come in many different forms, including static images and interactive visualizations.

Take for example, this infographic from SAP, created using SAP Business Objects Lumira. This animated infographic highlights the correlation between the number of tech sessions per category at SXSW as a leading indicator to the global growth of the category measured in dollars. <embed infographic>

When design and data complement each other to tell a deeper story, the insights will likely evoke emotion and remain in the audience’s minds long after the last slide has been presented.

Know your audience

You wouldn’t present the same data in the exact same manner to both the finance department and design team, even though the data might be required information for both parties. Instead, think of how each party can best use the insights in their respective jobs, then highlight key aspects of the data that is useful for them. In addition, knowing your audience’s personalities and learning habits also helps you gauge whether to incorporate more graphics and colors in a data visualization or if they are comfortable with raw numbers.

Always answer the so what? question

No matter how visually appealing your charts or illustrations are, the data you present should always link back to the larger picture. It should answer the questions: So what if I know this information? How does this data impact the business and what can we do about it?

What makes a visualization useful is that it presents the data in a way that helps others understand a bigger issue and act on the data. After all, having information is half a battle won, but knowing what to do with it is winning the war.

Learn more about data visualization and what it can do for your business here.

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