Visualizing Philanthropy: Storytelling with Data

May 14, 2012

We’ve all done it — we’re working in a spreadsheet, and we select “Insert Chart.” Our data storytelling is done, right?

According to Cole Nussbaumer, people analytics manager at Google, we’ve taken the first step in presenting our data, not the last.

Nussbaumer believes Excel and other number-crunching programs have made it very easy to create very bad graphs.  She suggests we step back and answer some basic questions before we make a pie — like we do before we bake a pie.

Here’s a quick summary of the process she walked us through at a meeting of the Grants Managers Network last week. For much more, check her website at:

Answer some questions.
These are the sorts of questions we ask before writing an article, but this step is often skipped when creating visuals.

  • What story are you trying to tell with your data?
  • Who is your audience? What do they need to know?

Determine the right type of graphic to tell your story.
Goal: Make it easy for your audience to understand the data.

  • Bar charts are good for categorical data and are easy to read.
  • Line graphs are good for plotting continuous data over time.
  • Pie charts are difficult to interpret — use with care.

Eliminate clutter.

  • Much of what your spreadsheet program adds to your chart should be stripped away by you, including everything that muddies your message. This might include, unnecessary color, 3D, grid lines, backgrounds, etc.
  • Use Gestalt principles (color, size, intensity) to cut items with no informative value. What remains should help tell your story.

Draw attention where you want it.

  • Use certain attributes (color, size) to direct your audience’s attention and provide a visual hierarchy of information.
  • Don’t use color to make your chart colorful — use it draw the eye to important data.

Tell a visual story.

  • Use text to give context, title, label and help you tell your story.
  • Align text at the upper left of your chart, as that’s how we read.

Practice makes perfect.

  • Seek feedback from colleagues, especially from those less familiar with the data.
  • You will likely need to repeat these steps, several times, until you get a visual that truly tells your story.
  • Realize that your spreadsheet program may make it difficult, but not impossible, to get this done.

– Susan Stehling, MCF communications associate

Photo cc AlyssssylA