Data Visualisation: How to tell a story without words


Could data visualisation provide professionals with a powerful tool for communicating important messages to their different stakeholders more effectively? Using information at work to drive efficiency is a well-established practice and the C-Suite is no stranger to graphs and bar charts. What annual report would be complete without the bar chart showing the annual rise in profits? Unfortunately, for many companies, this is as good as it gets – and it could be much better. Good data visualisation is something that every department could benefit from.

There is good reason for senior teams taking time out to learn new data visualisation skills. The advent of big data and the rising tide of information has meant that documents such as annual reports have been growing in size. Many are now thick tomes full of complex terms and collections of numbers. So there has never been a better time for senior professionals to take information to the next level and present it in a way that is visually appealing, easy to understand and, most importantly, useful.

For example, one of the challenges that CFOs routinely face is showing the relationships between different factors within the business. How does the company’s investment in clean technologies impact on the communities in which it operates? What impact do changes in the level of R&D spend have on future new product stream? What is the relationship between the sourcing of purchases and the generation of revenues in the different territories in which the company operates? Complex questions such as these do not need complex answers, but a well-conceived graphic to make the impact that words alone cannot.

But it’s not only communicating to an external audience that makes the art of data visualisation such a valuable skill. Increasingly, many businesses are adopting a joined-up approach to their information management processes. As a result, more information needs to be communicated internally as well. And if internal staff don’t understand the data presented to them, they will never be able to buy into the proposals behind it.

So what is the starting point for the finance pro who wants to become better at data visualisation?

The first step is to recognise that images are as much a medium of communication as words or numbers. The users who excel with visualisation don’t just use images as a mere add-on to words or numbers. Instead, they treat them as a whole new language in their own right.

Next, it is too easy to think of every graphic as a bar chart. But the medium of visualisation has a diverse range of elements to choose from, just like the worlds of words or numbers. It is more than just different types of charts and graphs.

Data is an important part of any C-Suite role, and understanding how to present it is key to communicating it effectively to audiences both inside and outside a business. The most skilled visualisers know that the purpose of visualising data is to tell a story. So they put themselves in their audience’s shoes and let the information speak for itself in order to make that story clear. They don’t overcomplicate it with irrelevant statistics or quotes because this can cause the core message to be lost. With the appropriate presentation, data can be an extremely powerful tool – and tell a story without words.