Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda Ready By 21 Presentation Recap

ReadyBy21On March 31, almost two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to give a presentation at the national Ready by 21 conference in Baltimore titled “The Alchemy of Data Visualization”.

I always love giving presentations, but one thing I still need to work on is timing.  I tend to get pretty excited talking about data visualization and often, I get sidetracked. This presentation was especially tricky because I was presenting on my own.  Let’s just say, I could have really used a timekeeper to keep me on time!  Oops!

So it’s a common occurrence, after the presentation, to ruminate about the things I missed. However, this time around, as I was going home and kicking myself repeatedly (in a figurative sense, I assure you) for not covering this, that or the other, I realized this was a perfect opportunity to go over some data visualization tips on the blog.

So, here are the points I wish I would have covered if I wasn’t so long-winded.

On Powerpoint, go BIG


Poverty Rate for Westchester County, 2014 One Year Estimates, American Community Survey

You are not doing your audience any favors by plopping down numbers in 10 point text.  Your audience really appreciates it when you present numbers in 200 point font (or in this example, 199 point!).  You are guaranteed that people can see your statistic from the back of the room.   Yes, it forces you to make a decisions of which statistics you TRULY want to highlight, but shouldn’t you be doing that anyway?  I always say that it’s better for your audience to remember one statistic than none at all.  If you go big, something’s going to stick.

And since you’re going big, perhaps you’ll want to employ a trick I use on occasion:  doing away with bullet points altogether.   Just have one idea per slide.  That said, it can make slide decks unwieldy if you’re not careful, and if you rely on bullet points during the presentation for your verbal cues, it does take some adjustment to get used to.

Colors Matter

A lot!  At our organization, we talk about “angry red” when we’re generating maps.  As a general rule, we avoid red, black, and brown when we’re mapping/visualizing race/ethnicity data (although we realize that if you only have a black & white printer – you’re pretty stuck when it comes to color choices).  We just don’t want to walk into any unintentional quagmires or send any subliminal messages when we’re visualizing data that shows racial categories.  Stephanie Evergreen wrote a series of blog posts on how colors and other visual elements can reinforce racial stereotypes (Part 1 and Part 2 ), and I definitely recommend that you check it out.

Online Tools Are Not Perfect – So Check Your Work On Multiple Browsers

You will find, sooner rather than later, that an infographic that looks great in one browser can will look horrible in another.  This is a particular struggle because there are many organizations that have obsolete computers with browsers that haven’t been updated in three years (I’m thinking Internet Explorer.)  We’ve been fortunate that our audience has seemed to turn to Google Chrome/Safari (not Firefox, surprisingly enough) and so now our infographics tend to favor those two browsers.

We still do check, especially if we’re working on an infographic developed in an online tool such as Piktochart, to make sure it works decently enough with multiple browsers.  But there are times, where we just have to hold our breath and hope that nobody notices that the a line is slightly darker in Firefox than in Chrome, or that the letters in the text don’t have perfect kerning.

If You Have A Graphic Designer, Get A Style Guide

Let’s face it, if you’re on this blog, there’s a strong likelihood that you work in a non-profit with a limited budget, and you can’t hire a graphic designer whenever you have a project.

So, if you have a graphic designer who does good work and gets who you are, ask him or her to develop a style guide.  A style guide is essentially a document that lays out what fonts, font sizes and logos an organization should use to maintain consistent branding.  The New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (keepers of the NYC Subway) had a style guide which was rediscovered a couple years ago.  Here are some other great examples.

You don’t have to go into that much detail, but it’s amazing what a consistent font/typeface and color palette can do.  And you’ll save time, because you’re not trying to reinvent the visual wheel each time you design another handout, report, or Powerpoint presentation (Ann K. Emery wrote a fantastic blog post about this.).  PS:  ColorPic is a great tool for matching colors to existing work.

Piece of advice: your graphic designer probably has a set of favored fonts and most likely, they are NOT in the standard MS Windows/Mac font suite.  If you want to save money, instruct your graphic designer to either, select a font that’s already available on your organization’s computers or a free/low cost font. You don’t want a $5,000 surprise in your style guide. Keep in mind that free/low cost fonts can be amazing, but if you’re considering one of them, you need to check that that font has EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER in it (and don’t forget about upper case/lower case! ).You do not want to choose a default font that’s missing punctuation marks (Been there. Done that.)

If You Want Your Work To Stand Out, Avoid Calibri

What’s Calibri? It’s the default font in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.  It is everywhere!   And every organization most likely uses it for their presentations/reports because they’ve got better things to do than to stress out about a typeface.

However, if you choose another font, you are GUARANTEED to catch the attention of your audience, because you’ve just selected a font that is actually different from 99% of the presentations out there (Full confession:  That was a completely made up statistic, but next time you attend a conference, just pay attention to the number of times you see a Calibri font and you’ll see what I mean.).  There’s a Periodic Table of Typefaces that’s quite lovely to look at, and serves as a great reference point for the thousands of fonts that are out there.  For some tongue in cheek amusement, you can also look at this flowchart from Julian Hansen named, appropriately enough, “So You Need A Typeface

More Resources

Additional resources to add to your checklist:


Did we miss something?  Feel free to type up your recommendations in the comments section.

Special thanks to Ian Faigley and the rest of the staff at Forum for Youth Investment, who patiently handled all my questions about the conference and listened to me vent via hashtag about my presentation jitters.  

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