Introduction to data visualization
Data visualization is an effective way to convey complex information in a simple way. There are a lot of ways to visualize data, from the standard bar chart to complex, custom illustrated infographics, but essentially they all have the same goal: to give numbers a narrative.
Or in other words, to tell a story.
Data visualization is great at showing comparisons or change, highlighting important insights, and making complex information easy to understand and remember.
Have a clear, concise message
Even if your data includes a wide range of insights, you should summarize the key takeaway in a single, concise point. Your goal isn’t to put your audience to work deciphering tables and adding up values in their head, it’s to keep them focused on your presentation and the things you want them to remember.
So find the key point/insight/conclusion amongst each set of data, and find both visual and story-driven ways to bring it to the forefront in your presentation.
Tell a story
The point of data visualization is not to simply share data. If you are putting up a table that takes up the entire slide with the thought that your audience wants to see all the data, you are missing the point of data viz.
Instead, you need to pull out the key information, and highlight it in a clear, visual way. Data visualization works best when it’s used to emphasize key points and show change over time.
So the next time you are adding data viz to a presentation, think about what you want your audience to take away from data, and not just the data itself.
Once you’ve started thinking about your data in storytelling terms, you can start to expand your perspective from the slide level to the presentation level.
That means that while each slide/data visualization should be framed as a story, each should also contribute to the larger story that your entire presentation tells.
Data visualization excels at showing connections or relationships. And a big part of using data to tell a story is showing how those relationships have evolved over time.
This means tactics like emphasizing key dates or events that correlate with changes in data, emphasizing correlations, or just calling attention to the fact that sales spikes seem to line up with rainfall (for example).
By highlighting these types of trends and evolutions, you are building the core components of a story directly into your data.
It’s both simple and effective.
Write headlines, not descriptions
One of our best pieces of advice for elevating any presentation is to get rid of descriptive slide titles in favor of “headlines,” or more engaging text.
Imagine two slides with the same chart. One says “Q4 Results” while the other says “We Won the Holidays.”
This is a simple example of how you can approach the same data in multiple ways. Now, rather than simply telling your audience what they are seeing, you are priming them to grasp your message before they even see the data.
This also wraps in our first point about using your data to tell a story. “Q4 Results” doesn’t tell a story, it just says what something is. But “We Won the Holidays” immediately conjures thoughts of time period, success, competition, and more, all in just a few words.
Now, your data can tell a simple story, and your audience will easily retain your information.
Find your purpose
One of the most important steps to take when building a data visualization is to pause and ask yourself “why am I making this?” It may sound simple, but too often people place charts, tables, or graphs on a slide just because they have data, without thinking about why it is there and what purpose it serves.
This isn’t to say you should be using finding reasons to include less data viz. Rather, that you start to understand it as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
And that end should be the story your slide (or presentation) tells. Understanding the purpose of your data viz helps you to hone in on the key message, elevate it, and ensure your audience hears what you want them to hear, and doesn’t simply get lost in the data.
Understand your audience
Even the most finely tuned charts and elegant infographics will fall short if your audience isn’t interested in numbers. Conversely, a pitch-perfect story with sharp headlines and clear design will be ineffective if the audience is only interested in the data.
To find the right balance between data visualizations and other types of content, you need to understand your audience.
Think about who they are, what they are interested in, and what they want to hear from you during this presentation. Then, think about the best way to tell that story.
It might be through slide after slide of dense charts, or it might be highlighting a key statistic on a single slide.
The point is, there’s no one right answer to choosing how much or what type of data visualization to include. It all depends on what will move each audience you present to, and will need to be reevaluated each time you share your data.
Choose the right chart
It’s easy to default to the chart type you use most, or feel most comfortable with editing. But different types of data are best represented by different types of charts.
While there is flexibility in choosing a chart type, you would do well to stick to the style that best fits your data. That means you need to look at the specific data you have, then consider the type of chart that suits your information and helps to highlight the key findings you want to convey.
Here are a few of our favorite chart types, as well as the common use cases for each:
Tables are great for showing comparisons or relationships between multiple values for categories.
Line charts are effective for viewing change over time, as well as comparing many series over that same time period.
Pie charts (and Donut charts) show the composition of a whole. For example, what amount different products contribute to the total sales for a company.
Combo charts do just what the name says: combine two types of chart to highlight change over time and relationships between datasets.
Effective use of data visualization is more about telling a story than it is about sharing out numbers. In the age of data collection, brands are acquiring more and more data each day, and the greater the amount to sift through, the harder it is to turn it into something actionable.
That’s why data visualization is such a powerful tool for presenters: it allows them to tell complex stories with simple visuals.
So the next time you think about adding a chart or table to a presentation, start by asking yourself what story you want to tell, and find ways that data visualization can support your story.
Looking for more information about data visualization and beyond? Check out our resources for expert advice and tested strategies.