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Making Data Meaningful

by Vicki on April 6, 2012

I had my fair share of deciphering, memorizing and even creating (I’m ashamed to admit) visually unappealing and complex graphs and charts of research results during my time in academia.

I’m still not overly talented when it comes to creating visually stunning or novel charts and graphs to showcase results – spatial and visual are simply not my forte – but after working with research and statistics for so many years, I have a true appreciation for the art of sharing data and stats in a way that is compelling and easy to understand.

Here are my top tips for making data and statistics meaningful and memorable to the masses:

  • Tell a story about the data. Consider the bigger message you are trying to share with your audience and weave a story around it.
  • Make the reader feel something. If you have a stat that will make your reader gasp aloud, use it.
  • Think about your audience’s point of view. Why should your audience care about what you are reporting? Why is your research important to them? It is not about what you want the reader to know, it is about what your reader will want to know.
  • Make the numbers memorable. 50% is easier to read and then remember than 49.56%. When you can round do so (a word of caution – this approach isn’t practical in all contexts!).
  • Break down huge numbers into numbers that people can grasp. Telling me that education care costs X billion dollars a year might be true, but what does it mean per Albertan per day?
  • Be clear, concise and simple in your reporting. Never use jargon or “insider speak”.
  • Use graphics to visually represent your findings. There are SO many really great examples of data visualizations and infographics.  Here are some excellent ones.

Good, solid research takes a lot of time and effort but so does quality reporting. Think about your audience and report to their perspective. After all, what is the point of brilliant research if nobody can make heads or tails out of the findings or understand the broader implications?

Note: I found another great resources – visual.ly

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I sometimes hear executives voice concerns that their employees are not delivering the results they had expected.  You would think, then, that when we talk to those same employees they would express feelings of pressure to do better or the disappointment that they were struggling to get the best job done.

Often, it is the opposite. The employees actually feel pretty good about their own performance.

Here is what I think is the disconnect –

The problem typically doesn’t lie at the employee level.  It lies in the lack of clarity around performance expectations and organizational goals.  If the expectations are not crystal clear and instead are left open to interpretation at the front-line level, employees are most likely going to feel like they are doing a good job because they will have their own set of performance measures on which to evaluate themselves.

So, if it appears that the front-line in your organization isn’t delivering the results you expect, I’d suggest looking at what the employees understand the performance expectations to be and if that is aligned with your objective.

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