Flatten the curve

A well-thought mantra or a well-designed visual may have many uses.

Today’s Twitter feed presented me with an inspiring variant of the ‘flatten the curve’ chart. The double bell curve, which is known by almost everyone today, visualizes the key rationale for keeping social distance in tough corona times. The chart explains why slowing the spread of the infection is nearly as important as stopping it and imposes a country’s health care capacity as the target upper limit for the epidemic’s growth.

The graphic I stumbled upon was attributed to the Sustainable Fashion Forum and promotes a new way of doing business that contains climate change risks by limiting natural resource consumption and carbon emission to the earth’s capacity.

The sustainable business curve does not only hold a clear message, but from a marketer’s perspective it also shows an effective way of capitalizing on a hot and widely discussed topic. What else could a casual blogger wish for writing a new post about, while staying at home to help flatten the COVID-19 curve?

No more naked numbers

“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.” – W. E. B. Du Bois, Afro-American activist and writer

It’s often good to quote numbers in your presentation. They provide powerful means to support the dialog you’re conducting with your audience. But, beware: figures don’t always speak for themselves. In science, naked numbers are numbers without units. Any scientist or economist will tell you that numbers without labels and charts without legends are meaningless and worthless. How would you feel about being offered a salary of “25”, not knowing if you’ll get 25 euros, 25 cents, or 25 peanuts for your work? per hour, per day, or per week?

peanuts

Also in my job as a strategist and marketer, I’m frequently confronted with naked numbers, industry analyst reports that contradict each other, and quantitative claims that don’t seem to make any sense at all. As Plato, the Greek philosopher, already said 24 centuries ago: a good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers. This is exactly why you shouldn’t present naked figures, but complement them by the sources and the formulas you used to obtain them.

And still, even the most unprovable forecasts and improbable measurements may yield good presentation material. Not because of their objective value, but just because some people may agree and others will disagree with them. And that’s exactly the sort of conflict you need to create for fueling a conversation with or between your audience. You’ll get an opportunity to discuss the why and the how, explain the logic behind your story, clarify the assumptions you made, bring additional facts and figures, talk about use cases and customer references, and prove the value of your products and services.

Finally, also remember what I wrote in my “living by numbers” post on this blog: numbers, particularly very large ones, don’t resonate with people until they are presented in an appropriate format. So, it remains essential to use good visualization methods for giving meaning to your figures, and making your audience remember the data you quote.

Related posts:

To Prezi or not to Prezi

Lately I have seen a few talks that were authored and presented with Prezi. Though the software has a nice set of features and the guys who created and delivered the presentations did a great job, I am not a big fan of it and I largely share what Scott Berkun’s writes in his ”why I hate Prezi” blog post.

presi_menu

Prezi may be good as a mind mapping tool, but most presentations tend to be overdone as they are trying to maximize the application’s complex structuring, navigation and visualization capabilities. Since I need to focus on delivering my message rather than maneuvering through my visuals –while keeping a mental map of where I am in the 2D or 3D space– I only want to deal with the next slide button on my remote clicker (of course I could create a “linear” storyline using the built-in path tool, but then I might revert as well to Powerpoint.) Furthermore, and as a consequence of these complex zooming and panning actions, a well brought Prezi presentation needs even more rehearsal than the average speaking engagement.

This is why I am not using Prezi and why, until further notice, I’m gonna stick to (good and bad) old Powerpoint. I acknowledge this is a personal opinion and that there are many enthusiastic (and more experienced) Prezi users around. So, if you consider yourself one of them, feel free to comment on this post and tell me why I should start loving Prezi.

Other articles to fuel the discussion about the pros and cons of using Prezi:

Living by numbers

In a business or technology talk, the audience is too often confronted with slideuments that misuse PowerPoint to present large tables with huge amounts of numerical or statistical data.

Numbers are indeed a powerful tool –sometimes even an essential one– to support your story and prove your statements. But, are you really sure that the folks in the room will understand and remember all the data you present? Numbers don’t resonate with people until they are placed into the right context and displayed in an appropriate format.

Here are a few tips for embedding small data and big data into your presentations:

  • Present only the essential. Select a few compelling facts or crispy figures that support your message. Don’t lose your time –and the audience’s– by reading the numbers out loud. Distribute the bulk data and the nitty-gritty details as a handout (there is a misunderstanding that the hard or soft copies you give away after your presentation always need to contain exactly the same information as the slides you projected on the screen.)

  • Use images and charts instead of digits. The human brain interprets every digit as a picture, so complex tables and calculations literally overload your brain. A good visual representation or an infographic is lighter to digest and will better stick with the public.
    There are zillions of alternatives to bar charts and pies to depict numerical data. If you need inspiration, have a look at this periodic table of visualization methods published by visual-literacy.org. And when you want to add animated charts to your PowerPoints, you might learn to handle data like Hans Rosling.

  • Illustrate your figures with metaphors. (Visual) metaphors help you to capture the audience’s attention and to convey complex concepts. They also let your listeners better grasp the order of magnitude and the importance of the (sometimes transcendental) numbers you may be showing them.

A final word of caution: get your numbers right! People won’t appreciate that you provide them with false facts. Also make sure you know the details behind the numbers and that you can explain or motivate the data you present.

More guidelines and best practices for writing stories about numbers and bringing statistics to life for non-statisticians can be found in the Making Data Meaningful series, published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).