Everyone’s a winner, baby

The photo below, taken at last week’s G7 summit in Charlevoix (Canada) and published on Instagram by German chancellor Angela Merkel, will probably go into history as one of the most viral pictures of 2018, as well as a good candidate for this year’s World Press Photo awards.

The picture (either in its original or in one of the many photoshopped versions that are circulating on the web) got annotations ranging from “renaissance art” to “a scene from the Apprentice.” I’m sure it will be used as a scholarly example for discussing facial expression and body language. Or for illustrating the problematic trade relationship between the EU and the US. Or for promoting the German chancellor’s prominent role at the G7 meeting.

But… as I wrote in an earlier post on this blog, “The right of being wrong,” there is no such thing as a single truth. All depends on the observer’s or the reporter’s perspective. Look at the other pictures, taken at the same moment, and tweeted by the French, the Italian, and the American players respectively…

It suddenly becomes less obvious telling which of the world leaders – Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Giuseppe Conte, or maybe even Donald Trump – really was the boss in Charlevoix.

Everyone’s a winner, baby. At least, that’s what their PR people will try to tell us…

Whistles and bells and spoke cards

I remember that, when I was a kid, we used to place playing cards in the spokes of our bicycle wheels. As the cards made quite some noise when they flapped against the spokes, they created a false perception of speed (just like some motor bikers or car freaks believe the more racket their engine produces, the faster the vehicle will go.)

Well, from experience I can tell you that these spoke cards where nothing more than whistles and bells. My bike didn’t run any faster. But, the idea that an object that makes a lot of noise or reflects a lot of light must be very impressive, very powerful, or very expensive still exists. Take, for example, the average boom box kid who thinks he’ll rock everyone who passes by. Or the gold-colored smart phone owner who wants to make his/her cheap phone look kind of premium. Or even worse, those people who buy a bling bling case to pimp up their mobile device to a pocketful of glitter and glamour.

A similar syndrome also exists with certain speakers at public events. I still remember the guy dressed up in a three-piece black suit talking to… a geeky audience at a software developer conference (you may revisit my “Dress to impress” and “About white shirt, black shirt, and tee-shirt gigs” posts to read more about speaker dress codes.) Or with those business presenters that create fancy slide decks, ornamented with comic sans text, kitschy colors, or meaningless clip art (slide design topics also covered by my “Don’t feed the chameleons” and “Why look and feel matter in business presentations” posts.)

But, always keep in mind that whistles and bells are not half as bad as smoke and mirrors – showing off with a gold-colored iPhone never compares to wearing a fake Rolex. Or to delivering a presentation that you didn’t prepare yourself about a topic you hardly know anything about. Or to telling lies to, cheating on, or fooling your customers… (as reported on in my “Marketing, promises, and real products” post.)

Sometimes graphs are not more than pretty lines

Two weeks ago I published a blog post, “Moore’s law… and beyond,” about a presentation in which I used Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law and the Chasm Theory to characterize the transition from a technology driven business to a value driven business.

With a bit of creative chartsmithing, I combined the graphs of these 3 famous industry laws into one, and by visually cheating with axes, scales, and representations I came to the observation that the chasm is actually the point where the transition from a technology driven business to a value driven business needs to take place.

Besides some positive comments on LinkedIn and a bunch of likes on Facebook ― my post was even republished by the World Economic Forum ―  I also received these critical remarks:

“Combining these graphs is actually ridiculous and leads to invalid deductions. Your conclusions are unsupportable because there is no data being presented.”

and

“Graphs without meaningful units, operationalized axes, and statistical analyses are just pretty lines.”

Both commentators were of course absolutely right. But the presentation I reported on in my article had never been meant to introduce a new, mathematically correct forecasting model. Its only aim was to deliver a message about creating market growth through user orientation. The medium is the message. And this medium worked very well for me. Remember that the title on top of this blog page is “B2B storytelling”. And that’s exactly what I tried to do when I joined the three graphs into one…

One more excellent reaction to the allegations above came from another LinkedIn reader:

“Letters are also just pretty lines, but the order in which they are put gives them context and turns them into words with meaning. Quit being so literal and enjoy the graph within the context of an accompanying article and as a way to illustrate something interesting.”

The online conversation about my blog post probably reveals a more fundamental discussion: when we create and deliver a presentation, should we stick to the hard facts and figures, or is a presenter allowed to “filter”, “frame” or “massage” certain data?

Here’s my opinion. First of all, you should never, never lie to your audience or present them with facts and figures when you definitely know they are incorrect. There is nothing wrong, however, with omitting unnecessary details, or framing the content to better align with the message you’re trying to convey.

A good example of this is the use of (financial or industry) analyst data in your slides. Although most of these analyst guys are to be considered trustworthy sources, in my blog post about “the incredible lightness of numbers” I illustrated that the figures they give may sometimes vary by a large factor. Of course, as a presenter, you’re allowed to quote only the sources that ― depending on what you want to show or prove ― mention the smallest of the largest numbers.

As a presenter you can also influence the audience’s perception of objective data. The case (by Garr Reynolds) I have outlined in my post “the duck and the rabbit” shows how a table may be (mis)used as an alternative to a bar chart to display hard numbers in a less dramatic or emotional way.

And, finally, sometimes you may assume that a theory or statement is true, until somebody proves you it’s not. Take the anecdote of the 17th-century Dutch painting “View of Scheveningen Sands,” created by Hendrick van Anthonissen.

whale_painting

Until recently, the whole world assumed that the people on the painting were actually staring at a deserted seascape… until the restoration of the artwork revealed a beached whale on the beach!

The duck and the rabbit

duck_rabbit

Is the drawing above showing the image of a duck or a rabbit? Well, it depends on how you present it, and what your audience sees and/or wants to make of  it. Actually, most of people may think it’s a bird with a long bill. But when you put on the picture and tell them you’re showing a rabbit, you can bet on it that the majority of the people in the room will keep seeing a rodent with long ears.

The duck-rabbit image was made famous by Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, as a means of describing two different ways of seeing: seeing that vs. seeing as.

Presentation Zen author Garr Reynolds has described another case of how a presenter can influence (or even manipulate) perception. The example below shows how a table may be (mis)used as an alternative to a bar chart to display hard numbers in a less dramatic or emotional way.

sales_chartsales_table

The inevitable conclusion after observing the bar chart is that product C is poorly underperforming. And though the grid displays exactly the same information, some people may not even notice the dramatic revenue gap with the other products.

Writing about the duck and the rabbit made me also think about another animal story: the fable of the tortoise and the hare. There are different moral conclusions that can be drawn from this tale, but my personal favorite is that it’s not about what capabilities you have (or how much data you’ve gathered), but about how you actually apply them (or how you visualize and explain the numbers.)

Big data is a popular topic these days, but IMHO there are still a few too many number fetishists around – also among professional presenters. In next week’s post I will give some examples that show why (an abundance of) figures may be meaningless, boring or even dangerous. And present some best practices for selecting, interpreting and displaying numbers in your presentations.

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