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Show Me The Numbers

Show Me The Numbers

While no business presentation is complete without its plethora of charts and graphics, very few people understand how truly meaningless numbers are unless their significance is clearly understood and they are effectively communicated to the people who rely on them for decision making.

Give a clear voice to the numbers that tell the story of your business.

In 1997, Edward R Tufte, one of the world's leading experts in the visual presentation of information, showed how poor data presentation helped contribute to the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which led to the deaths of seven astronauts. Tufte's argument was compelling: had the presentations to NASA officials about the potential risk of O-ring failure in cold temperatures been better designed, decision makers would have understood the extreme risk involved and surely would have postponed the launch.

"An avoidable tragedy occurred because of an information presentation that was misleading," adds Stephen Few, principal of US company Perceptual Edge and author of Show Me the Numbers. "Every day, just like the officials at NASA, you rely on good data to inform your decisions. Lives may not be at stake, but livelihoods certainly are."

Most data displays are time-consuming and difficult to read, Few says, packed with unnecessary information and visual fluff - and potentially misleading. Yet nothing is more critical to business or IT success than the numbers that measure what is going on. People at work hear information consumers plead: "Just show me the numbers!" every day. But when the numbers are almost universally communicated in tables and graphs that are painfully badly designed - often to the point of misinformation - they sometimes might as well remain invisible.

In 1954, a time of mounting public anxiety about deliberately deceptive uses of graphics, freelancer writer Darrell Huff published How to Lie with Statistics, a slim volume fated to become the most widely read statistics book in the history of the world.

Half a century later, Huff's book is still in print (the first Chinese edition was published by Shanghai University's Department of Economics in 2003) and that anxiety has not diminished, but it may be somewhat missing the point, and Few thinks his own book is now just as valuable. He believes if there are still plenty of people out there intentionally using statistics to mislead, there are many more unintentionally misleading through statistics.

"Businesses pay for this oversight in the form of bad investment decisions and flawed strategic choices," he says. And data presentation is just as fundamental to the successful use of information and hence to the success of information technology.

"Business intelligence [BI] is a hot topic today - and rightfully so," Few writes. "Through BI and its cousins and aliases - decision support, data warehousing and information management - we pay great attention to data acquisition, integration, cleansing, enrichment, access, analysis and reporting. We pay comparatively little attention to the design practices needed to present data effectively and efficiently. The cost to business is insidious, for it is rarely recognized."

Few says that however much information you provide through the use of BI technology, it is only worthwhile to the degree that those who analyze and pass it on to others succeed in presenting it effectively.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

There are three kinds of lies, British statesman and author Benjamin Disraeli has often been quoted as saying: lies, damned lies and statistics. Few's efforts are dedicated to helping business learn how to use statistics to present essential truths.

After all, he points out, numbers are central to our understanding of business performance. We use them to measure success and identify emerging opportunities and we rely on them to help us make informed decisions. Key performance metrics, Balanced Scorecards, digital dashboards and other measures have become the lifeblood of business operations.

However, even while giving enormous, often excessive, credence to the messages these numbers convey, we routinely fail to consider how we should present them. Few claims inattention to the design of quantitative communication is creating huge hidden costs in most businesses, as executives waste time struggling to understand the meaning and significance of numbers - time that could have been devoted to doing something about them, or worse, as they misinterpret them and make fatally flawed decisions.

"There are many symptoms which all translate into loss of money for businesses," Few says. "One is that when data is presented in the way it typically is, people really struggle to make sense out of it and they end up spending a lot of time trying to figure out what a particular graph is trying to tell them. If the data was presented more effectively they would get the information immediately. So there's a lot of time wasted because of poor presentation."

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