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Visualization is an increasing part of work today. Arguments and ideas often must be paired with charts to be effective.

Scott Berinato, a senior editor of Harvard Business Review, says data visualization has become the lingua franca of business – a common language that brings everyone together. Speaking this language requires us to adapt a new way of thinking – visual thinking.

“Making good charts isn’t a special or a nice-to-have skill anymore; it’s a must-have skill. If all you ever do is click a button in Excel or Google Charts to generate a basic chart from some data set, you can be sure that some of your colleagues are doing more and getting noticed for it,” he writes in Good Charts.

It’s not a case of making the chart look pretty – colour selection or adding 3D effects. It’s a case of making clear, in the context, what the viewers of the chart need to understand. That means weaving together two elements: design execution as well as contextual awareness - what are you trying to say, to whom and where. “The more relevant a data visualization is to its context, the more forgiving, to a point, we can be about its execution,” he says.

Just as a composer uses music theory to create music, you will need to understand some elements of visual perception theory. He highlights these seven factors at play when a chart hits our eyes:

  • We don’t go in order: Visuals aren’t read in the same predictable way as you are reading this article, from left to right, word after word. Instead, we look first at the visual and then scan the chart for contextual clues that are important. In creating a chart, he says that means you should “write” spatially, from the visual outward, using other elements to provide clues to the visual’s meaning.
  • We see first what stands out: Our eyes go directly to changes and differences, such as distinct colours, steep curves, clusters or outliers. We don’t choose this path. The eyes and the brain are noticing the more dynamic visual information. That means whatever stands out should match or support the idea being conveyed. If it doesn’t, it’s a distraction or direct competitor with the idea you want to share.
  • We see only a few things at once: If the visual contains dozens, hundreds or thousands of plotted data points, people will see a forest rather than the trees. That can be fine if the forest conveys the main point. But if you need them to focus on some individual trees, show as few points as possible so they aren’t obscured, disappearing into the aggregate view.
  • We seek meaning and make connections: Our mind incessantly tries to assign meaning to a visual and make causal connections between the elements presented. So make sure the visual elements are related in some meaningful way to avoid false narratives.
  • We rely on conventions and metaphors: We assume green is good and red is bad, north is up and south is down. Embrace these deeply ingrained conventions and metaphors; it will make your chart more effective. Contradicting them creates uncertainty and confusion.
  • We sense statistical values in visuals: Our eyes are quite good at estimating changes to statistical information within a visual. We can trust the visuals to convey the data differences.
  • We feel numbers: People experience emotional reactions to charts that will last beyond the actual statistical information conveyed. “When creating a chart, you’re not just informing minds but affecting hearts. As you are creating the chart, think about the emotions you want the audience to feel,” he advises.

Charts vary, from the whiteboard sketch summarizing a discussion to the business concept on a napkin to the statistical illustration of sales or profit to make a point or explore what’s wrong. In each situation, you must be aware of your audience so that what is clear to you is starkly clear from the outset to them.

Quick hits

  • Helpful meeting icebreaker from Alberta-based consultant Michael Kerr: “What is the No. 1 thing you miss or loved about your very first job?”
  • For your marketing message to enter someone’s mid-term memory it must be repeated to that individual at least three times within seven night’s sleep, advertising guru Roy H. Williams says.
  • Even in a remote world, try to communicate your job resignation face-to-face, suggests executive recruiter Gerald Walsh. Do it with class. Your formal letter after should thank the organization for the growth opportunities and positive experiences and wish it well for the future.
  • The person you spend the most time listening to is yourself. Try not to lose their respect advises author Mark Manson, pointing out that can come when seeking validation from others.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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