We’ve all heard the phrase “a picture is worth 1,000 words.” It turns out that this is more than just an old saying. Research dating back to the 19th century has proven that our brains can grasp, process and retain pictures with much greater meaning than numbers or words alone.
This is called the “picture superiority effect,” and understanding this basic human dynamic is critical to integrated marketers. It means that it is faster for people to understand many data points when they are displayed in charts and graphs rather than poring over piles of spreadsheets or reading pages and pages of reports.
Why its Important
"Research dating back to the 19th century has proven that our brains can grasp, process and retain pictures with much greater meaning than numbers or words alone. This is called the “picture superiority effect,” and understanding this basic human dynamic is critical to integrated marketers."
Let’s consider the marketing director who is trying to explain why she wants to devote more of her online media budget to mobile and digital advertising. Her boss is a big fan of magazines and is questioning the soundness of her decision. She needs to find data to support her position.
She could tell her boss that the 2015 Infotrends report shows the continuing decline of print in favor of digital advertising and that this trend is also being seen among marketing budgets. Or she can show the following slide with an accompanying verbal narrative in a presentation. Which do you think is more compelling?
Telling the Story
There are many different ways to analyze and interpret data — as Ronald H. Coase famously said in his Essays on Economics and Economists, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” Therefore, we must have a very clear understanding of our objectives in order to protect against too much bias in our analysis. It is equally important to express yourself in a way that people will understand and retain, and to ultimately gain their collaboration and support. And nothing builds collaboration like storytelling. The story allows you to answer the meaningful questions you have as a marketer, as well as the questions your boss will ask, such as:
- What is working, and what is not working?
- Did we succeed?
- And in all cases — WHY?
To be a successful data storyteller, you need to master some basic concepts that can help you generate the best visuals, including:
- Determining what you are trying to visualize and what kind of information you want to communicate.
- Knowing your audience and understanding how they process visual information.
- Using a visual that conveys the information in the best and simplest form for your audience — if you need to spend more than 30 seconds explaining the chart, it isn’t working.
- Understanding that reporting is easy — recommending is hard. Don’t take the easy way out and simply report out a bunch of metrics and numbers. Take the time to understand what it means and add value.
But you also need to be careful not to go overboard in your storytelling. Some of the biggest mistakes I see marketers make in creating visual stories from data include:
- Death by PowerPoint — Too many slides with too much information on each slide. Remember that you should never have more than one slide for every two minutes. Combine the slide with your narrative for added impact.
- Too good to be true — Too much animation, flash or pizzazz diminishes the value of the data you are presenting. Strive for purity and simplicity.
- The infographic that killed the whale — Taking every single data point you can possibly imagine and turning it into one great, big, long infographic. No one wants to look at infographics that cannot be viewed “above the crease” or on one simple, horizontal slide.
Today, you need to communicate and tell your story to your colleagues who may not be as well versed in statistics and numbers. Take the time to truly understand what the data means so you can tell your audience what meaningful actions they can take based on the story in your data.
Good marketers get good results, but great marketers are great communicators and get great results. By mastering the art of data visualization, you can build trust and respect, gain credibility and create collaboration among your peers, your colleagues and your boss.