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Axis that doesn’t start at zero; Issue #380 January 10, 2017

If you read articles by data visualization experts on the topic of measurement axes that don’t start at zero, you will find one common theme: strong opposition to the idea. While I agree with them in most cases, I want to suggest an exception to this rule. Let’s start with the key issue. By default, Excel and PowerPoint select the minimum and maximum values for the measurement axis on a graph. For example, the vertical axis on a column graph is the measurement axis. I haven’t been able to figure out how the programs select these values. It seems to depend on the values in the data. The problem comes when the axis does not start at zero. What the programs seem to be trying to do is to make the difference in values easier to see by adjusting the starting value of the axis. This can lead to misinterpretation by the audience. This is especially true when there are no data labels and the audience is only comparing the height of the columns. In this example, the default chosen by PowerPoint makes the values for Day 2-5 look like they are double the value of Day 1, when that is not the case. The common advice from the data visualization experts is to always start your measurement axis at zero so that the relative size of the columns or bars is always showing an accurate picture of the values being represented. Here is the above graph with the axis starting at zero. The comparison is more accurate, but now the challenge is being able to distinguish the values...

Showing performance where we want to be below a goal; Issue #379 December 20, 2016

In a recent customized workshop a participant asked how to show performance of a metric where the objective is to be below a goal. Typically we want to show performance and being above the goal is considered better performance. In this case, where they were measuring response time in a customer service setting, the desire is to respond quicker than the standard. One of the common visuals I show to measure performance relative to a goal is a dashed line on a column graph, like this example. In this visual, it is easy to see if our performance is above the goal because the column extends above the dashed line representing the goal. If we were to use this type of visual to measure response time, the column would be below the goal in situations where we performed better than the standard. This would be hard for the audience to understand, since it is opposite to the typical interpretation of this type of visual. I spent some time thinking about this challenge. I wanted to find a visual that could work for this situation. I searched for what other data visualization experts had come up with and didn’t find anything for this situation. After some different attempts, here’s the visual I came up with. The audience needs to know which area represents good performance and which area represents performance above the standard. I use the red and green colors in a stacked column chart to create these areas. I added labels to the areas for those who have a form of color deficiency that would not allow them to...

Focusing the message for variance analysis; Slide Makeover #86

Finance (and other) professionals often analyze current performance compared to past performance or plans to look for variances. Too often they copy the spreadsheet onto a slide. This slide makeover shows how you can focus the message with visuals when you are discussing variances. You can also watch this slide makeover directly on...

Order data to support your message; Issue #378 December 6, 2016

One common mistake I see professionals make when presenting analysis is not ordering the data in a way that supports the message they are trying to communicate. This isn’t done intentionally, but happens because they accept the default order of data that comes from the source system. The data we use in analysis often comes from a source system, such as an operations control system, call center tracking system, or sales process system. The system organizes the data in a way that makes sense for the tracking system, which could be by date, by customer, or alphabetically by product. We extract the data from the system and analyze it to find insights that will help move the organization closer to its goals. The challenge comes when we go to present the results of that analysis. Often the results are in the same order as the data was when we first imported it. If we just accept the default order, we often make the audience do work to figure out how the data or visual supports the message. Here is an example from a recent customized workshop. The tracking system ordered the data by month because it is collected each day. The message of this slide was about how each location was doing compared to the goal that had been set. In order to see how each location was progressing towards meeting the goal, the audience has to connect the columns for each color across the four months. This is work that the audience may not be willing to do, or may not do correctly. Instead, as a presenter, we...

Monster.com November 22, 2016

Dave is one of the experts quoted in this article titled "10 PowerPoint hacks to make your presentations look more professional": https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/powerpoint-hacks-1116....

Handling requests for one slide only; Issue #377 November 22, 2016

In two recent customized workshops a participant asked how to handle a request from an executive to provide just one single slide, instead of a full presentation. In this article I’d like to share my advice if you receive such a request. First of all, let’s discuss why an executive makes this type of request. I heard this type of request over two decades ago when I was an employee in the corporate world. I was working for the CFO at the time and he said to not give him more than one page on any topic as he just didn’t have time to read more than one page. We were dealing with memos at the time instead of PowerPoint slides, but the request comes from the same place. Busy executives are dealing with so many items that they don’t have the time to wade through all of the details of every issue. They need their staff to provide just the most important information required for them to understand the issue and make decisions related to it. That is why they ask for one slide, not a full presentation. Once you understand what the executive really needs, it becomes easier to figure out how to create that one slide. First, realize that the slide they are asking for is not for a presentation. It is more of a document that they can quickly review and be up to speed on the topic. So the one slide will not necessarily observe all of the best practices for slides in the same way as a slide intended to be presented. I...

Quality of conclusion, not Quantity of work; Issue #376 November 8, 2016

One of the issues I often see in presentations is a slide with a spreadsheet showing all the calculations that were done when analyzing a situation or set of data. This is usually an indication of a fundamental difference in what the presenter thinks the executives want and what the executives actually need. The presenter puts the spreadsheet of calculations on the slide thinking that the executives want to see how much effort went into the analysis. The presenter did a lot of work and wants to show it. If they only showed a few numbers on the slide, how would the executives know that the analysis was thorough and well done? When the executives see the spreadsheet on the screen, they get overwhelmed by all the numbers. They may get confused. They may ask to just “give me the bottom line” or something similar. If they are detail oriented, they may focus on one inconsequential number and drill down a rabbit hole that has nothing to do with the real message. None of these reactions are what the presenter thought they would get. The presenter thought the executives would be so impressed with the volume of work that was done. The presenter is surprised that they don’t get a standing ovation. What is wrong with the executives? The problem is that the executives care more about the quality of the conclusion than the quantity of work that was done. The executive role is about making important decisions to move the organization forward towards the goals that have been set. This requires insight from analysis of data and situations. The...

Less isn’t more, Clear is More; Issue #375 October 25, 2016

In my customized workshops I show makeovers of slides the participants have provided to show how cutting the information overload makes the message much clearer for the audience. I often hear someone say that this is an example of the “less is more” approach. In this article, I want to explain why I don’t think that less is more. By definition, less can’t be more. They are two opposite ideas. If less was truly more in presenting, we could just stop talking mid-sentence half-way through our time and the audience would jump to their feet in a thunderous standing ovation. The CEO would rush over and immediately promote us to a senior executive position. See how ridiculous that is. Just presenting less won’t help the audience. What will help is selecting the few key messages they need to hear and presenting those well. I think “Clear is More” is a better statement to use. Clear communication of key messages is better understood, more often acted upon, and more appreciated by the audience. Selecting the most important messages for your audience is not easy. It requires effort to identify the needs of this audience, understand how to move them to the goal you have set for the presentation, and the ability to emotionally let go of some of the information you have worked on that isn’t as important as the key messages. This is much harder than just cutting half the presentation to create “less”. Clear communication also means creating visuals that the audience immediately understands. Start with a headline for each slide that summarizes the message you want the audience...

How to get the audience to care about your presentation; Issue #374 October 11, 2016

In two of my customized workshops recently, participants asked how they can keep the audience engaged during the presentation. This is not the first time this question has been asked. I think every presenter wants their audience to pay attention to what they are saying. Today I want to suggest how you can do this. Some presenters tell me that they can’t get the audience to pay attention because the topic being presented is boring. It may be legal or regulatory information, or it may be financial results. I don’t think these topics are necessarily boring. I think there are ways that every topic can grab the attention of the audience. It isn’t the topic that is the issue. It is how the topic is presented. If you believe the topic is boring and you just drone on and on in a monotone voice, any topic will be boring. Presenters need to remember that the presentation isn’t for them, it is for the audience. And the audience is made up of people like themselves, and like you and I. All of us pay attention to what we are interested in, and that is the key when developing our presentations. For each audience you speak to, analyze the people who will be there. What matters to them? What about your topic impacts their situation or life? How does what you are saying affect them personally? In short, Why should they care? Unless you develop your presentation to focus on what matters to your audience, you run the real risk of them not paying attention. It isn’t your topic, it is how...

Why you can safely ignore most advice for speakers; Issue #373 September 27, 2016

I regularly see articles with advice for speakers. It could be five things to do, nine things to avoid doing, or some variation on those themes. You probably see these articles too. You can safely ignore almost all of this advice. Let me explain why. The problem with these articles is that they don’t apply to the vast majority of presenters. These articles are written for professional speakers who give inspirational keynote presentations to audiences in ballrooms. If you see words such as: stage, AV crew, lighting, crowd, microphone, or sponsors in an article, the advice doesn’t apply to you. I would guess that 95+% of all presentations given each day are by business professionals whose primary job is not speaking, but providing service to their organization and clients. They are not presenting on a stage in front of a large crowd. They are presenting to a few people in a meeting room trying to convince them to take a specific action. The context is totally different to a professional speaker. Here are three specific differences that make most of the advice for professional speakers invalid for business professionals who deliver presentations. Goal: A professional speaker is there to inspire the crowd, make them feel good, and have an enjoyable time. There is not a specific action that the entire crowd needs to agree to move forward with. A business professional needs to communicate a clear message that results in action by the small group they are speaking to. When these articles talk about using inspirational stories and full screen images, ignore that advice. Setting: The professional speaker is...