10 Steps to Improve Your Data Communication (and 1 to Avoid)

Sourcing data, running the analysis and coming up with meaningful results is only half the battle. Now you need to present your findings in a way that garners interest, and possible change.

So, how can you effectively communicate the results of your analyses to the change-makers in your organisation?

#01 Know your Audience

Data Communication and Data Storytelling are an important, but often underutilised, aspect of data analysis. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, Dr. Stephanie Evergreen, author of Presenting Data Effectively: Communicating Your Findings for Maximum Impact, states, “We […] often forget how hard it is to be a consumer of data. It’s great that everything has become so data-driven but I think we have so much of it that we have what I have been calling ‘the burden of knowledge […] That means that we know so much, it’s hard to talk about it to people who don’t know — as you gain more expertise it becomes harder to put yourself in the head of your audience.”

To be an effective communicator, you need to make your point as clear as possible. You need to know your audience, and contextualise the information in a way they will understand and take to heart.

Take a look at the graph below — a hexbin plot — as an example of what analysts or other technical audiences might present to one another.

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Great for analysts — not so great for your non-technical stakeholders. Image from MSSQL Tips

Here, you see that the relationship between profit and unit price are linear; as one goes up, so does the other. You can also see where most of the data in this relationship lies, indicated by hexagons with more saturated colour. This is great for analysts as it conveys a lot of information about the data, it could be harder for non-technical audiences to understand. Instead, a basic line graph would be better for stating a simple, yet impactful, message.

#02 Humanise your Numbers

Numbers, while great at quantifying information, are not the best when it comes to communicating real-life impact. Forbes suggests ‘humanising’ these numbers in ways that allow us to personally connect with the information, using specific words, colours, basic graphs, or even images.

“We read tables, but we see charts.”

One of the easiest ways to humanise data is to replace a table with an eye-catching, simple graph. Remember, we read tables, but we see charts and graphs. Now, some of us love a table — but this is not the norm; most people will ignore a basic table, even if it is extremely informative, because it takes time to read.

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From the article “Young Workers Like Facebook, Apple and Google”, Wall Street Journal

This table is from a Wall Street Journal article that surveyed where young professionals would most like to work.

Now, compare it to this bar chart:

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This graph is by no means perfect, but you can start to see the visual impact of the graph, and instantaneously see what company was the top pick in the survey, without having to read a table.

Graphics that catch the eye of the audience help connect data to the world at large, making us think about more widespread implications. It puts the data into a context more people will understand, remember, and care about.

#03 Simplify your Charts

Data is complicated. When it comes to data visualisations, simplicity is key. Visualisations should communicate difficult information in a clear, concise manner. Keep graphs and charts uncluttered, clean, and simple to ensure your main points are understood by your audience.

To keep charts simple, keep in mind the data-ink ratio — the amount of ink used to represent the data compared to the amount of ink used for non-essential parts like background colours and extra text.

Generally, you can remove:

  • Gridlines
  • Borders
  • Unnecessary text and numbers

Let the actual data stand out.

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Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2001.

The chart on the left has a low data-ink ratio, which has lots of extra aesthetics not pertinent to the data, versus the chart on the right with a high data-ink ratio, which has the unnecessary aesthetics removed. A well-structured visualisation — along with a captive title and clear labels — can be extremely effective to share insights and convey a message. Because it is easier to look at — and thus interpret — your audience is more likely to be engaged and take the information to heart.

#04 Call-to-Action

There is more to a presentation or report than just sharing information. You want to trigger some human response. Add a ‘call to action’, also known as ‘insight-to-action’.

After presenting factual visualisations, encourage your audience to use this knowledge to take action, and transform — be it at the individual level, or the wider organisational level.

Your choice of charts, colours, images, and words should be used in a way that triggers an immediate response, so choose wisely. Including too much detail can cause the main message to be lost. Look at the image below:

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Whilst not perfect, the picture conveys that there is a lot of plastic being used throughout Europe, and one of the largest sources is from packaging. Perhaps you work in manufacturing, or your company simply wants to become more green or sustainable through greater recycling efforts. This image shows where there are opportunities to reduce plastic use to make the greatest environmental impact. If you feel your audience needs more information, you can add a list of resources or references in an appropriate place that they can refer to in the future.

Keep in mind the message in the image above could be enhanced by the use of different colours to emphasise “packaging” in contrast to the other categories. This leads us to the next key tip — choosing your colours.

#05 Colour is Important. Choose Wisely.

Humans are extremely visual, and the colours we choose can drastically change how we perceive information.

Using the default multicolour pre-set charts in software packages like Excel is one of the most common mistakes. Instead, use an emphasis, or ‘call-to-action’ colour — it will immediately draw the eye to the exact part of the graph you want your audience to see first. De-emphasise everything else using greyscale or a neutral colour. Your audience will understand the message and its impact quickly and easily.

Take a look at our earlier bar graph. Remember how I said it wasn’t perfect… let’s make some improvements. Here is the graph with the default colour scheme:

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And here it is using a custom colour scheme with a single emphasis colour:

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Here’s another example changing a default colour scheme (top graph) to using a single emphasis colour (bottom graph):

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Default colour schemes make it difficult to determine the takeaway message.
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Using a single emphasis colour to highlight “Health”, and a light grey to de-emphasise all other categories.

The first graph is technically accurate, but it’s hard to determine the takeaway message. If you’re trying to prove that Health-based non-profits have seen an approximately 20% increase in support from area funders since 2011, which graph would you choose? Which will elicit a stronger, more emotional response from your audience? Which one is easier to interpret on a Zoom call? Also note that the graph on the right also utilises a high data-ink ratio to further simplify the graph.

#06 Use Words Sparingly

A good visualisation has as few words as possible, since you are telling a story with images. Words, while important, need to be used sparingly and convey as much meaning as possible — similar to poetry. What is present needs to be both useful and impactful.

Start by making titles more specific, eliminating the need for additional subtitles. This saves space, reduces clutter, and avoids confusion with ambiguous, generic terms.

Relate the title to your insights. If sales went up or down in a certain department, use that for your title, and use the graph to reinforce that finding. The results of your analysis do not need to be a surprise; in fact, you should make it clear from the beginning, and use the visuals to reinforce your findings. Which leads to…

#07 Flip the Order

Take a different approach to reports: don’t use the standard academic structure. Starting with the background and ending with the results and conclusions has been ingrained into us throughout our education. This traditional approach just doesn’t capture your audience’s attention very well, leaving them to either a) believe your findings are not that important or b) just lose interest. Instead, try flipping the order: start with the actions, findings, and conclusions, and then move on to the background and importance of the project. This is referred to as ‘giving the bottom-line up front’.

#08 Tell a good story

Use your data to tell a compelling story. Storytelling is an ancient form of human communication. Stories have the power to translate complex ideas across cultural and generational boundaries, they inspire feeling, meaning and memory, and they’re persuasive. Stories stick. And if you’re trying to engage a group of Zoom-fatigued colleagues, something sticky is exactly what you need.

Data stories have a few characteristics in common:

  1. Have a strong narrative driven by a business problem or objective
  2. Present findings in ways the audience will understand and be able to identify with
  3. Conclude with what actions need to be taken, and possible consequences

A former story artist at Pixar once published a list of 22 rules for storytelling. Four of these rules stand out, relevant to anyone that communicates using data:

“You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.”

“Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard; get yours working up front.”

“Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.”

“What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.”

No matter your goal, communication is vital to any successful project or pitch. You should always be thinking about how to create a narrative that can be easily understood by any type of audience.

With presentations, the importance is not in the data itself, but what it means. Your connections between the data and your conclusions need to be as clear as possible, with no room for ambiguity.

Ensure that each image or graph in your presentation illustrates only one major point — one slide, one graph or image, one point.

#09 Be Curious. Be Creative.

Data visualisation is increasingly becoming dynamic and interactive. In fact, many companies are choosing to steer away from traditional presentation or report formats, instead choosing more interactive alternatives like videos and games, as well as taking inspiration from data journalism with innovative and high-impact techniques like scrollytelling.

Take the Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), where their analytics teams create five-minute, self-contained videos to convey the broad concepts behind their results, rather than specifically discussing the data. These videos are followed by verbal presentations where the data is explored in more depth. The videos are about the main message — getting it across to a wide and varied audience in a simple and effective and engaging way. They act as a primer to set expectations and the main idea, which helps focus the audience for later discussion.

Keep an eye out for creative and effective examples of data communication and save them for future use. Want to dive in and get hands on? There are so many tools and tutorials out there to really stretch and develop your data visualisation skills.

#10 Consider your Platforms

At least half of your audience will probably end up reading your reports on some type of mobile device. However, most reports are still structured as though they will be printed out to be read — this seems a little outdated these days. If your audience will be consuming your data insights outside of a meeting or presentation, think mobile-first. Mobile-first design is a mantra in the world of web design and development, but it should be part of your data communication toolkit too.

Let’s say you’re scrolling through a webpage or app on your phone and suddenly you’re faced with a blank white screen. You wait for it to load, and wait, and wait… it’s traditional to leave blank pages in formal written reports, a holdover from when pages were printed out. But if a user is scrolling through a report hosted online, they might think that a blank page means the report hasn’t finished loading, or that they’ve come to the end. They could miss some really vital information, or just lose interest.

Similarly, including information that is not strictly relevant increases the chances of your findings being ignored. When optimising reports for a fast-paced, mobile-user world, brevity and clarity is ideal.

What NOT to do

Whilst you may be comfortable with technical terms and methods from your own area of expertise, keep in mind that your audience may not. Yes, we know we keep talking about your audience but communication is, literally, a two-way street. All too often, data communication is ordered in terms of the sequence of tasks that were performed, glossing over the main takeaways, using unnecessary terminology or jargon and leaving the audience confused. Your audience is generally unconcerned with the methods, they want the results and any implications for the organisation.

Remember, it is not necessary to share every single idea, fact, or data point in a presentation. In fact, it would be counter-intuitive, since most people will not pay attention to that level of detail. You should avoid this if at all possible.

If it is important to include the method and any technical terms, it can be included in an appendix of a report or presentation. But this should not be the main focus of your communication, and should be limited to other technical audiences and/or team members who will understand the technical aspects of the project.

Final Thoughts

Remember — data is a strong tool, but its power is often reliant on your ability to communicate its importance. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but by using these steps, you’ll continue to grow your data communication skills, making clearer, more impactful visualisations that not only engage your audience but enact positive change too.

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