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Is a Picture Really Worth 1000 Words?

Jan 17, 2018

That’s certainly the conventional wisdom. But is it true? The answer is critical to every FP&A professional, as the tools for creating nifty data visualizations get trendier and more powerful, while the audiences for FP&A reports often state – rightly or wrongly – that all their cognitive problems with your reports will disappear if you would just give them a few graphs and pictures.

To test the truth of that belief, consider the following graph. I found it in a report produced by a very well-known securities and industry analysis firm, about expense and revenue trends in not-for-profit health care providers. I’ve left off the graph’s title. Now, look at the graph – take as long as you like – and then tell yourself what the key takeaway(s) is(are):

  graph  

What did you learn? How much time did you take? By the way, the graph’s title was, “Reflecting a Sharp Reversal from Last Year, Annual Expenses Grew at a Faster Rate Than Annual Revenue.” Did that thought jump out at you? Personally, I found it hard to draw any meaning at all from this graph without a careful, time-consuming review. In other words, this graph essentially defeats the purpose of why we produce graphs in the first place.

At FinNext 2018, I’ll be speaking about “Data Visualization: The Four All-Important Questions We Often Forget to Ask Ourselves.” It’s clear to me that the person who produced our example graph forgot to ask him/herself Question #3: What changes and additions to the graph will help your audience understand its central messages quickly and accurately? A thoughtful review of that question would have helped him/her deliver a much clearer, more impactful graph.

Join me at FinNext 2018 for a lively, interactive conversation about a presentation skill that’s critical to the career success and personal brand image of every FP&A professional. 

Randall Bolten
Chief Executive Officer, Lucidity