In this episode of In-Ear Insights, Katie and Chris talk about how to work with data and visualize it more effectively. Data visualization is a skill not taught in schools, and it’s equal part art and science. Tune in to hear their tips about what’s the best way to use different charts and graphs, what reports should contain, and much more.

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Machine-Generated Transcript

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Christopher Penn
This is in your insights, the trust insights podcast.

In this week’s in your insights we’re talking about crimes against numbers, visualization of data and data storytelling. We’ll start off by saying I saw this horrendous, horrendous chart in the news. So I’m going to put like five different pie charts next to each other, trying to illustrate some kind of comparison about voting and the end 2020 candidates. And we’re not going to talk about the politics all but the fact that someone tried to tell a story about using five in pie charts, all with different colors is a crime against numbers. And so let’s start off today. Like when we’re talking about communicating intelligently with data. Katie, what is some of the most egregious misuse that you’ve seen other than, like, I’ll start off by saying pies for eating, not for communicating data.

Katie Robbert
Um, you know, I think that there’s a lack of education around how to properly use the charts and graphs that

can come out of the box with things like Excel, or any of those other types of software programs.

I think people just don’t know how to properly communicate with that type of visualization. And it is tough, it’s not something that people get right right away. I mean, how many times do I go back to you and say, I don’t get it, let’s do it again. Because I think what happens is the data itself gets over complicated. And then when you try to put it into a very simple chart or graph,

I think that that’s where it kind of gets mucked up. And so I think, also, if we go back even a step farther, the difference between a chart and a graph, or a visualization or a pie chart, or bar chart, or a line chart, like I think all of those things, they’re so nuanced. And they each have their own specific use and how they tell the story. But who’s teaching that I remember when I was in grad school, and I wasn’t in grad school, right out of college, I was in grad school in my late 20s. So I had been working for a while. And in my stats class, my professor gave us an assignment. And he was like, and part of the deliverable part of your homework is to create some kind of a chart with this data. Now, I’d never learned how to make charts in excel at that point in my career. And I was in my mid 20s, and I remember I had asked him that question goes, it’s not my job to teach you. You just need to Google it. And so I had like a mini meltdown, because I was like, how did I get this far in my career, and I don’t even know how to make this chart. And it was just like, I, I always go back to that, because it’s one of those, it shouldn’t be this hard, but it is. So let’s start with the difference between the different types.

Christopher Penn
Okay, yeah, it’s kind of like frying pans and kitchen utensils, right. So let’s start with a pie chart. a pie chart is not useful.

Katie Robbert
a pie chart is there for a reason, like there is a utility for it, but not in the way most people tend to use it. It’s not a comparison tool.

Christopher Penn
Know, except if you want, except if you have a few data points. And you want to show the composition of the data set. And I mean, honestly, if it’s more than five components, a pie chart, that point becomes wrong. The bar chart, which is the when the bars go horizontally to me is a chart that you use for comparison, I want to compare one element to another and be able to see clearly is one bigger than another that that’s, that’s a very simple explanation. A column chart is when you take a bar chart, flip it 90 degrees, and it’s you still show comparison. But now because you’re showing in a sequence, you’re starting to elicit time. Now, if you take if you connect the tops of the bars, columns, and remove them. Now you have a line chart, right, which is showing progress over time, right. And that’s really what a line chart is for.

When you fill in underneath the line, now you have an area chart. And that’s really only situationally useful. It’s not super helpful when you have two different things, you want to compare two different sets of numbers, that’s when you use a scatter plot, right? x, y plot, those are the major chart types, right? line, pie, bar, column area and scatter plot. And there’s a whole bunch of variations, but they’re mostly decoration. So I think the the thing huge surprise that we’re coming back to this, but the the first thing we have to ask is, what is it we’re trying to communicate?

Katie Robbert
Yeah, you know, it’s interesting, I still struggle to read the stacked bar charts are the stacked column charts, because it’s not always super clear, we’re what it is it’s trying to convey. And I think that that might be one of the most overused aside from pie charts that might be one of the most overused types of charts is that stacked column chart, because it doesn’t really do the job of showing proportion. So out of 100%, it got this much. And then if it’s this much higher, it was this much plus this much, that’s not an intuitive thing. So aside from using the incorrect types of charts, we’re not doing we, as a whole, the Royal we are not doing a great job of teaching people how to interpret these things, we just slap a label on it and say, here’s your data. Yeah. So

let’s talk a little bit about some of the more advanced tools such as tableau, for example, I know that that for us is a favorite, what are some of the ways that Tableau is getting it right? What are the more advanced features that something like an Excel can’t do? Oh, you know, this thing

Christopher Penn
that I keep coming back to, though, is, it’s, it provides the same utilities, and it will maybe suggest certain data type certain chart types. But at the end of the day, you really have to go back to planning and strategy, what are we trying to communicate, and what’s the best way to communicate that thing, and there’s no chart type in Tableau that you can also generate in, in Excel or Google Sheets, or things like that, you know, even the most sophisticated data science tools when you look, and this is one of the troubles with, with some of the value of like AI, for example, when you look at the output of a, I’ll just use some fancy terms, extreme gradient boosting algorithm to determine variable importance, the opposite bar chart, right? Because that’s all it needs to be is which one was most important, this one it but if you don’t think about how do I want to communicate that information? It doesn’t help. Now, some things I’ve seen people do wrong across the board. Things like not putting labels on their series like, hey, this this bars longer than the spark, okay, how much longer? You know, is it one bar longer? Is it 10 bars longer? How much longer and number two, which is favorite of politicians is not starting your axes at zero? So they’ll say, Well, this is from 89 to 90, because massive change? No, no, no, it’s put plus one.

Katie Robbert
Well, what I think is interesting, and I want to talk about a bit is something that you just said is that more advanced tools such as tableau, they do the exact same thing. So it you know, whether you I think what people get wrong is, well, if I just had a better visualization tool, I could communicate better with my data. But really, what we’re saying is, it actually comes down to the planning and making sure you’re answering the questions that you’re actually need to answer. So I think that,

you know, one of the things that I would like to see marketers doing more of, especially with labeling your charts is, what is the question? So they might just say, you know, time series data or voter registration. Well, what was the question? How about you label the chart with what the question was? So it actually says, How many voters registered in Massachusetts? And then you show the data, it’s like, Oh, okay. Now I know the answer. So it should be the label is the question. The chart answers the question. It should be that simple. And where we constantly again, the Royal we as marketers overcomplicate that, do you feel like we overcomplicate it, because we’re misunderstanding how to communicate the data, or we’re trying to hide something,

Christopher Penn
or both can be a bit of both. It can also be a lack of knowledge, like you said, about, about how to communicate well, with data. So there’s a number of reasons why these things can go sideways.

One, really one, one agree, just send that marketers are most guilty of especially when they get into a tool like Google Data Studio is they just sort of play the less back the truck up and pull the data all over the desk. Right? metrics are only useful comparison, right? You have to compare them to something either the same metric over time, or a different metric, or different organization a number by itself, like, Hey, we had 748 visits the website this week. Cool. So what right compared to last week, we’re up 5%. Okay, that’s, that’s more helpful. We’re down 14% year over year, God. Okay. So that shows something like, you know, so there’s, there’s has to be some sort of contrast in order to be able to tell a story. But to your point, sometimes the visualization, even a visualizations, overkill, right? If you talk to the CFO of a company, depending I’ve had some folks I’ve talked to the All they want is green, our up read our down. That’s it. That’s all they need to know. So it really is, what is the question we’re trying to answer? And what’s the best way to communicate that.

Katie Robbert
So I think one of the things that we would suggest is a, it’s an exercise that we call KPI mapping. And ultimately, what it boils down to is the difference between KPIs and metrics. KPIs are the numbers that will get you promoted or fired. And then the metrics are all of the different numbers that roll up into the KPI to make it, you know, so for example, if your KPI is more revenue, then you start to pick it apart, what are all of the different variables that will influence whether your revenue will go up or down. And so I so what we’re trying to say is that what we want to challenge marketers to do is do some of that KPI mapping before you start making your charts and graphs, because you’re probably trying to boil the ocean, you’re probably looking at the wrong numbers, we actually hear that a lot. A question that we get a lot is, what number should I be looking at? Well, it depends. So what are your KPIs? What are the numbers that are going to get you promoted or fired?

What metrics roll up into those numbers? And that’s where you should start creating your charts and graphs to answer those questions. So yes, you can have the high level how, you know, revenue week over week, but what goes into that, and that’s where you start to build out that Data Studio dashboard, or some other dashboard to tell the story of what’s happening.

Christopher Penn
Exactly. And there’s gonna be some things in there that aren’t going to be numbers that you will still need, you can count them, but that’s about it. But they’re still important. So one of the things that we talked about, often internally when we’re having meetings is, you know, where did this lead come from? What was the source of this lead, and, you know, was it from, you know, one of our personal networks, and so on and so forth. That is, that’s a categorical piece of data. This came from, you know, my personal Rolodex for anyone who gets very 130 Rolodex is like a paper database

Katie Robbert
I used to, when I my mom used to take me to work with her. And I used to love like flipping the Rolodex back and forth because they thought like, the flipping noise as it rolled around with the cards is really cool. But anyway, that’s, you know, an aside.

Okay, so where did the lead come from?

Christopher Penn
Right? So where did leads come from? Where did what are the things that are that are contributing to the outcome we care about, and some of them will be numerical, some of them will be categorical, and you have to be able to to understand is this piece of data important from the KPI map? And if it is, how do we communicate that sometimes, as much as I personally dislike word clouds, sometimes you can do a decent visualization that says, Yes, the most important thing was this trade show. And guess what, you know that that helps you make these decisions. But the other thing that we have to keep in mind is what answer is the person actually looking for? In a lot of cases, if you want to add value, it’s not the metric that you’re reporting on that someone cares about its step afterwards. So hey, website, traffic was up, 54%, cool. Look at your KPI map, what is website traffic contribute to you contributes to prospects? Ok, so now, you when you’re reporting, if you can start to wean people off of the activity metrics, and more towards the outcome metrics, the further into those KPIs you can go, the more valuable your reporting is, and the smarter you’ll look,

Katie Robbert
that’s always the goal at the end of the day, isn’t it?

Christopher Penn
Well, it is in a lot of ways you want to communicate things of value. And if you’re not communicating things of value, then

you know, a machine can replace you because the machine can spit up piles of useless data, it is your human insight in judgment that adds value to that data. When you ask for reporting from from us, you know, here at the company. Yeah, asking for the raw data you’re asking, okay, what, what, what either what decision Do you need me to make? or What can I do to help you know, it make the good numbers go up, and the bad numbers go down? Mm hmm.

Katie Robbert
So I want to go back to something that you were just talking about, which I think is an interesting point. And it’s that I think we all struggle with putting together that visualization that isn’t just numbers, the ones and zeros. So if you get more of that qualitative data, I think there’s a struggle to visualize it. So you mentioned word clouds,

there is a way to represent that data, individualization and maybe it’s counting the number of instances that a certain word or something like that appears. But let’s talk a little bit about that visualization of quantitative versus qualitative for a minute. And I think that that might also be part of where that misalignment of how to tell that story lies.

Christopher Penn
Go to an art museum, I think is the advice there. And that that sounds ridiculous. But there’s some really good books, this one that I really like, called the photographers I by Michael Freeman. And this is a book not about just photography, like, hey, this has to take a better picture. But this is

Unknown
about

Christopher Penn
how your eye sees things. And when you’re looking at something as mundane as a report, your eye has to travel a path over the thing. If you look at like a Chinese landscape picture, it is crafted in such a way that your eye follows a journey through the painting any others literal or metaphorical walkways and pass and clouds and mountains and stuff all the draw your eye in a certain flow that if you watch a magic show, like a Darwin Ortiz or David Copperfield, they’re all about controlling where your eyes go, when we as marketers slap together report in our haste to make the client meeting. We’re not thinking about the artistic aspect of the like, where does the I going to flow when you look at a really beautiful Data Studio dashboard? You know, in the Western world, people’s eyes tend to start at the top left one page, because that’s where we naturally start to read. What happens. How are you controlling with color and lines and things? How the eyes flowing across the the report, if it’s just blue colors starts everywhere you go, like, what do I do too much. It’s like, it’s like, abstract, right, like, that’s a bird had to Tara, Dokdo.

But it’s not,

it’s not reporting you. It’s not creating value. If someone if someone looks at your dashboard and thinks it’s abstract art, you’re not communicating your value. If, on the other hand, you’ve crafted it in such a way that the I flows across the page and flows naturally through the story of why are you reading this? What happened? How did it happen? What are we going to do next, and you tell that story visually, you’re going to get your people are going to give you feedback, okay, that report was helpful. And they can get through it faster. They can get more of what you want them to do, and they’ll see more value in it. But to your point, nobody teaches that in school,

Katie Robbert
right? Is it a I think I know the answer to this question. But is it a sin to put paragraphs of text explaining the chart on the radio report?

Christopher Penn
No, not at all. In fact,

something that our colleague, Avinash Kaushik says, is, the higher up a report goes, the less data and the more explanation there should be. So as long as it’s crafted in such a way that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the I, it’s part of the natural report reading process. Yeah, absolutely. You should be explaining things and providing guidance in

the very best reports, and they’re rare. But the very restful fourth should almost feel refreshing to read like, it’s like you, you sit down and read a really good novel, you read that you feel better at the end, you’re not tired, you’re not like confused, like, that was really insightful. And the best reports have the same impact on people,

Katie Robbert
I always feel. And this was the way that I always understood how to use charts and graphs and paragraphs of text within a report is the paragraph of text shouldn’t be explaining what the data is that you’re looking at, it should be explaining what to do next. So if you’re creating a paragraph of text to explain the chart that you just created, then you’re probably doing it wrong. And you need a more simplified chart, if I can’t figure out what this chart says, within five seconds. It’s too complicated. Don’t be afraid to simplify the charts so that you can focus more on the insights and actions because I do think that that’s where things tend to go sideways is, well, what is this chart saying, I don’t get it. And then you spend more time explaining what the data says, and not enough time explaining what you’re going to do about it.

Christopher Penn
I agree. And it’s kind of like when you go to the Art Museum, right? The what’s next to the painting isn’t necessarily a whole, like page long explanation. I’m sometimes it is, but for the most part is just either the provenance like where the painting came from, and who did it or just some key one key thing that to your point, if, you know, the art itself should almost be self explanatory. Now, that just lends us some additional color or tells you what do next, what else do you look for? When you when you when you’re looking at reports, and and you’re looking at things that you want to communicate information is, what else do you look at?

Katie Robbert
Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of it. You I personally, I look at the flow, I look to see, well, what’s the question that was being answered with this particular data point? And then what can I do about it? And I think that those really are the big three is, can I read this report? What was the question answered? And what am I going to do next? And I think that, you know, if you just hand me a spreadsheet of data, cool, so what now what, what do you want me to do with this thing, give me a little bit more insight and action into it, you know, KPI, trackers, metrics, trackers are wonderful tools, they’re necessary tools, but then take it a step farther, and help me put a plan together as to how to either keep the keep the metrics where they are, or improve them. And I think that that’s, you know, what I look for is not just the data, but then the so what moment like, what are we gonna do about this thing? So I think that that’s sort of the big things I look for.

Christopher Penn
Yep. I would agree with that. So

next steps for folks take a look at them. Probably the the report but you stress about the most and ask is why you stressing about it? Is it that it just takes too much time to put together? If so, do the KPI mapping exercise is it that you’re getting feedback that reports not helpful. Again, probably do the KPI mapping exercise, but also, you know, right out physically write out maybe, you know, take make a copy of report and blow it up and put it on a whiteboard and say, What question does each section of the report answer? And if you can’t figure out which question it is, that piece of information doesn’t belong on the report, but go through and workshop the reports you’re doing so that you can say, Yep, this is helpful or not, that’s not helpful. And I guarantee you, your reports will be 50% of what they were. But 100% better, more useful to the business.

Katie Robbert
So I think that that’s a good place for us to wrap it up a longer report doesn’t mean a more impactful report. and impactful report is one that is focused on answering those specific questions. So Chris, where can people find us if they have questions about this, if you want help with this, go to trust insights.ai. I mean, you’ve already found the podcast or go to the website and drop a line, say hi. And you can also if you bought a question

Christopher Penn
we’re doing once a month, sort of like a either a competition or a make over in our slack group. So if you go to trust insights, ai slash analytics for marketers, maybe we’ll do like a report Hot Seat this month and say, like, hey, put it in your favorite report. You know, that’s obviously not under NDA

and we can we can all workshop it together.

Katie Robbert
I think that’s a great idea. I look forward to seeing those reports.

Christopher Penn
Me too. And as always, please subscribe to our YouTube channel and our newsletter trust insights today, and we’ll talk to you next time.

Thank you for listening to enter insights, the trust insights podcast please ask a co worker or colleague to follow our show on Google podcasts. Apple podcast wherever you listen to your shows. Got a question like us to answer Watson help solving your data and analytics challenges visit us at www dot trust insights.ai today.


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