Visualize the data

If you enjoy seeing your data in graphic form – not just drab tables or bland bullet points – you’ve got to check out a website called FlowingData. Nathan Yau, a PhD candidate in statistics at UCLA, publishes the site – a wealth of interesting pictures.

Investor relations people and our audiences are, of course, data geeks. IR is about the numbers – but more than that, our story is about the change in numbers, the trend that creates value for shareholders. Flat lists of numbers hardly do justice, sometimes, to the powerful drivers of performance for our businesses.

FlowingData mapWe should always be on the hunt for clearer, easier to grasp, more persuasive ways to communicate data on the markets for our products and services, not to mention the financial trends that influence our stock prices. To the extent that investors “get it,” they invest.

It’s worth spending some spare time exploring new graphic approaches. A good place to start is FlowingData’s “projects” page, a sampler of Nathan’s experiments in visualization (he also offers an archive of older projects). Some pearls I’ve found:

  • Living maps – WalMart or Target‘s amazing growth story starts with a single store and expands to fill up the continent, as the years tick by. Instead of showing a static map of locations on a slide in a Powerpoint, or a simple map on your website, go dynamic with a map that comes alive.
  • Bubbles – Discs on a graph, by their size and positioning, communicate a lot. Have a look at this post on US market shares of beer – you see at a glance who the winners are and by how much (unless you’re an upscale beer snob, ignore his comments on Bud, Miller and Coors). To go hyperactive with bubbles – and leave numbers behind – check out Nathan’s moving graph of people’s hopes and dreams as expressed on social media site 43things.com.
  • Choosing a chart – Ever wonder which kind of chart to use? Nathan links to a decision-making flow chart in a PDF file from the Extreme Presentation blog.
  • How not to do it – FlowingData offers six amusing tips here on how to make an ordinary graphic really, really ugly.
  • Blogs on presenting data – A page full of links offers a jumping off point for exploring dozens of viewpoints and how-to sources on visualizing data.

FlowingData doesn’t focus on financial information, though it has some economic content. For example, the humble bar graph isn’t explored much. A staple of data presentation for investors, many bar charts could speak more persuasively if they had movement to show growth over time – or even just better labels and scaling.

My point is simply that IR people need to be thinking and learning about graphics. Visual tools are critical to communicating effectively with investors – and we should be sharpening our craft, even as we keep up with the numbers side of IR. At the intersection between numbers and art, we should be lifelong students.

A few other sources to stimulate your visual thinking: The Wall Street Journal Numbers Guy blog, anything by data graphic guru Edward Tufte, By the Numbers blog in The New York Times, and the Extreme Presentation website.

Do you have a favorite source of ideas for graphics in IR? Share a comment.

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One Response to “Visualize the data”

  1. PowerPoint goes berserk « IR Café Says:

    […] are a few previous ideas on good slides, bad slides and surprises in presentations. What’s your pet peeve or best practice for […]

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