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Bring Your Numbers to Life: Using visual data

Since communicators are usually word people, it’s sometimes a stretch for us to think visually. Moreover, many of us are downright uncomfortable with numbers. Yet business communicators are often called on to explain their company’s financial information or its plans to outsource, downsize, expand, relocate, merge or acquire and words may not be enough.

It’s hard to think of anything more directly connected to the bottom line—financial reports are the bottom line. Understanding a company’s business picture is critical to investors, stockholders, the board of directors, suppliers, partners, employees and the press. So if organizational communicators want to be taken seriously, they should use their craft to convey financial information clearly—and graphically.

But before talking about graphic techniques, a few thoughts on working with the numbers people productively.

Yes, number crunchers may talk a different language than we do and represent different personality types. But of course, it’s the communicator’s role to bridge the gap between finance-speak and the rest of the world. Most audiences will be no more knowledgeable than you are about interpreting numbers. It’s no different than translating for scientists and highly technical people, and similarly, it may demand your best skills: interviewing, listening, asking questions—whatever is necessary. If you don’t understand the material, neither will readers.

Your role is also to apply your best storytelling strategies, because financial messages are stories like all others. And, once you’ve understood and framed the information according to your best judgment, you need to use a repertoire of visual data approaches.

Often, using text and including numbers won’t convey the concepts you’re trying to get across. There may be too much text and too many numbers for quick reader comprehension. The answer: Display your data visually, using lists, tables, charts, graphs and—if possible—color.

Here’s a quick rundown of the types of visual data you can incorporate into your financial messages, and how they’re used to best advantage.

Lists
The simplest form of visual presentation consists of lists, which may be bulleted, numbered or alphabetized or may use a dash or arrow before each element. This visual display takes the data out of the ongoing text and highlights it for the reader.

XYZ Company Revenue
(in billions)

  • 2005 $65
  • 2006 $86
  • 2007 $54
  • 2008 $92 (projected)

Tables
Tables are a slightly more sophisticated form of a list, often used to compare a number of elements.

Revenue Comparisons of XYZ and ABC Companies (in billions)

XYZ ABC

2005 $65

2005 $46

2006 $86

2006 $55

2007 $54

2007 $58

2008 $92

2008 $61

Charts
The ubiquitous organization chart is probably the best-known example of displaying material visually and effectively. Bar charts and pie charts work well to emphasize some types of information, and depending on your data, one or the other may be more effective. If, for example, you have one percentage that’s much greater or smaller than the other percentages, a pie chart will show this information more efficiently than a bar chart.

Graphs
Line graphs are often a big advantage over bar graphs for displaying and comparing large amounts of data because they’re far less confusing to the reader’s eye. The trick with line graphs is to plot them accurately and to use quickly recognizable lines. For comparing two or three elements, use wider lines so the reader can grasp the information at a glance. Lines shown in different colors are most effective, if that’s an option for you. If not, it’s possible to use different kinds of graph lines, perhaps with little circles, squares, diamond shapes or broken, dashed lines to differentiate them from other lines.

Color
Although color’s not the first thing people think of with regard to displaying visual material, it’s definitely one of the best tools in the communicator’s arsenal.

In terms of using color, you may not have an option about which medium to use. Your company or your client will dictate whether you’re using one color, such as the black-on-white pages of a newspaper; two or four colors in a magazine or brochure format such as an annual report; a flip chart with colored markers; a slide presentation using PowerPoint or a similar program; and/or an online site for your material.

But, whichever display option is available, try to use as many elements as you can. Readers can more easily see the comparisons among four companies, for example, when each line on the graph or each bar in the chart is in a different color.

Why bother?
Creating charts, tables and graphs can often seem like a lot of extra work. But, it’s worth the effort. Beyond making difficult concepts easier for your readers to understand, using visual data has the advantage of breaking up the flow of endless words, drawing the reader’s eye to the elements you want to get across or emphasize. Without the visuals, blocks of copy tend to discourage readers and may come across as boring before they even get started.

A word of caution: As a smart communicator, you should use every possible strategy to get your message not only read, but understood. Of course, presenting a positive picture is usually basic to your job. But the message should be honest, and numbers should not be used to hide the details or distort the story.

Be alert to the ways that data can be misused (for example, by starting a graph at the 90 percent mark instead of 0, so that a small increase looks enormous, or by arbitrarily choosing a set of dates to demonstrate a trend that wouldn’t hold up in a bigger time frame).

Are you as a communicator responsible for monitoring creative accounting tactics? That’s a very complicated question we won’t try to answer here. But we do believe that good communicators help their organizations understand that in the long run, the impact of perceived dishonesty is always more damaging than telling the truth.

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