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How to Transform Complex Data Into Understandable and Shareable Visuals


Scott Berinato is the senior editor of Harvard Business Review and author of Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations. Passionate about the transformative power of data visualization inside organizations, Berinato shares how he uses data visualization at HBR and why he thinks we are living on the cusp of a visual data revolution.

Berinato’s book is a primer for non-experts to understand the basic tenets of data visualization. For both content marketers and business managers, effective data visualization is much more than creating a flashy graphic.

Effective data visualization is much more than creating a flashy graphic by @scottberinato via @clare_mcd. Click To Tweet

Good charts, he explains, are a way of crystallizing complex ideas into easily understandable and shareable visuals. His book shares the neuroscience behind visual thinking, a planning methodology for choosing appropriate charts and related illustrations, and case studies of companies that use charts to solve complex business problems.

The Art and Science of Emotional Engagement

CCO: What’s a real-life example of how good data visualization can be a transformative?

Berinato: One that sticks out for me (and one that I’ve been studying) is Tesla, the car company. They’ve integrated visualization into their operations and way of working. Tesla cars have so many sensors in them — they’re like rolling data generators. What’s really impressive to me is Tesla is beginning to see trends about how people actually drive versus how Tesla suspects they drive.

A simple example: Tesla can see the air pressure in tires over time. It can see when people refill, when pressure drops dramatically, and when it rises. This information not only changes how Tesla engineers its cars, but changes how it communicates with customers about taking care of their cars.

To do that, Tesla needs to visualize data in a way that makes it accessible, otherwise there would be too much data to make sense of. Based on seeing how people behave with the cars, Tesla can adapt everything from engineering to customer service and marketing. Everything.

CCO: That’s a great business case for data visualization. Why should publishers — whether traditional publishers or companies with content marketing focus — use data visualization as part of their storytelling efforts?

Berinato: The amount of information coming at us is insane. It’s overwhelming. So visualization serves two purposes.

First, it serves a prosaic purpose. It gets people’s attention. We can’t help this. It’s how the visual-processing system in our heads works. Our eyes see pictures and want to go to those pictures and make sense of them. So when you’re fighting for attention, whether in a Twitter feed or even in a presentation, visuals work. Visuals that offer information in a digestible way are appreciated.

Second, it solves the problem of relaying complex information. Consider something as simple as trying to understand the gun debate in America. There are so many people saying so many things about guns. Visualization is a way of making sense of all the data, ideas, and information.

Visualization is a way of making sense of all the data, ideas, and information says @ScottBerinato. Click To Tweet

There are many industries that benefit from data visualization. I talked with the electronic-health-records company, Athena Health. It’s starting to see the power of visualization to help customers understand complex personal health-care data.

CCO: Why is it so few do it well?

Berinato: My sense is companies have recognized it’s powerful and valuable, but they think they can hire unicorns to figure it out. By unicorns I mean people who have the design skills, the data-wrangling skills, and subject-matter expertise. Finding all those skills is one person is a hard thing to do. There are not many unicorns out there.

Also, marketers have an easier time grasping on to the “get-someone’s-attention” part, and a harder time with the “tell-a-story-well” part. You end up with a lot of things that are very eye-catching, but not terribly useful or informative. It’s relatively easy to make things eye-catching; making information useful and informative requires training.

CCO: In recent years, marketers have had a love affair with infographics. Unfortunately, the quality of research behind those graphics is often a dud.

Berinato: That can be frustrating. When visual information is powerful and shows something dramatic, we want to believe it. But if the facts behind the data don’t hold up (e.g., small sample size, misleading conclusions), then you’re giving people a false impression of a trend that isn’t there. Visualized data posters were popular for a while, but what you found is many were exercises in typography rather than in great chart-making.

CCO: Are there particular companies or industries that you believe are ahead of the crowd with data visualization?

Berinato: There are a couple of industries getting good at it. Management-consulting firms are one. Accenture, for example, even has a digital-literacy curriculum for its consultants. The other type of companies doing well in this space are those with a science or engineering background, such as aerospace, health-care, and agriculture companies. These organizations use data visualization to make sense of complex physical realities, such as measuring nutrients in the soil, gauging the efficiency of an engine at take-off, or improving throughput rates at a hospital.

CCO: What role/person can rally all these different disciplines within an organization?

Berinato: In some organizations it’s been the data person. In others it’s the design/creative content people. I think in marketing and in content businesses, it’s a person like myself — a subject-matter expert who’s interested in communicating visually — someone who wants to get data and design people together. The subject-matter experts are going to tell the most effective visual stories because they know the subject.

CCO: What do you find fascinating about the future of data visualization?

Berinato:  What I get excited about is making visualization more interactive in real time. Right now, when I talk about presentations in the book, we think about showing charts or getting the message right.

What I’m seeing more of is how people can represent data, then with an audience present, manipulate it, update it, and interact with it. I can imagine a presentation getting more interactive in the future. For example, a budget update becomes: “Here’s some numbers. Let’s workshop it right there. What would happen if we changed these assumptions?” That’s really exciting to think about.

CCO: Execution for data-visualization neophytes

Berinato:  No tool can replace the people you surround yourself with, Berinato says, “The most important thing you can do is have a data friend and a design friend who can help you do the process I outline in the book.”

If you don’t have access to those people or simply want to practice your own data-visualization skills, Berinato says the key is to play and experiment with the vast ecosystem of tools out there. “I’m trying to learn as many as I can. The tools change so fast it’s unbelievable — but they are getting better all the time,” he says.

For non-professionals wanting to create better basic charts, Berinato recommends Plotly, Datawrapper, and Quadrigram. For visual exploration, he says Tableau is a good go-to, but old-fashioned sketching practice is most important.

Data visualization mastery

Berinato points to a video depicting World War II death tallies as among the most recent compelling cases of great data visualization.

The Fallen of World War II from Neil Halloran on Vimeo.

Why is it so memorable? It’s not the software the author uses, but the manner of telling the story. As Berinato explains: “Those who are amazed by it want to know what tools they used. I always reply that what makes the video incredible are just three things:

  1. The author constructed a narrative. He turned data into a story with a setup, conflict, and resolution.
  1. He used animation in the right way — to demonstrate change. He’s not decorating with animation.
  1. He only uses three types of charts: stacked bars, unit charts, and stacked area charts.
Turn data into a story with a setup, conflict, & resolution says @ScottBerinato. #datavisualization Click To Tweet

When people think about the future of data visualization, they think about three-dimensional and crazy chart forms. This video shows you can tell a gripping, contemporary visual story with just three chart types, basic animation, and a simple narration.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly print magazine.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute