# Same Data, Different Stories

In today’s world of fake news I thought I might write a post about how easy it is to tell different versions of the truth simply by manipulating the same data and/or visualizing it differently. Each of my examples will be truthful, but can tell profoundly different stories.

For my example I chose to use the estimated US Median Earnings in dollars from the US Census website. I also chose to color code the data using blue for boys and pink for girls since these are the traditional colors associated with gender in the US.

There are a few things of note about the data:

• First, the earnings values are the median earnings per year. It’s important to understand that median is not necessarily equal to average. Median is literally the middle, meaning that half of the population will earn more than the median and half the population will earn less.
• Second, the % Diff is the percentage of difference between the Male and Female median salaries for the year. For example, males earned 23.3% more than females in 2005.

Let’s take a look at visualizing the data.

Looking at this chart, we would immediately think the difference between gender salaries has decreased dramatically in the last 11 years. And despite the title, it’s not clear which is the higher salary and which is the lower salary. We’re assuming our audience will know.

Now, look again at the same chart with a simple change.

As you can see, when we adjust the scale (vertical axis) to the full 100%, there’s been very little change. One of my favorite quotes is from Leon Trotsky, “Everything is relative in this world, where change alone endures.” Although I usually shorten it to just “everything is relative.” In this example, because most person’s understanding of percentages are relative to a scale of 0 – 100, the first chart’s scale can be misleading. Persons absorb charts visually so the position and movement of the line on the chart is what they are going to pay attention to first and it’s going to be relative to their perception of a percentage scale. Having a truncated vertical axis is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows us to see more detail, but it’s important to make sure that it doesn’t promote misconceptions of the data. This a more truthful chart but it still has the problem of clearly identifying which gender’s salary is higher and which is lower.

Let’s look at a chart which visualizes the median salaries.

This chart’s primary story is the growth of earnings for males and females from 2005 – 2016. Although it does show the male earnings as higher it’s not going to be the primary focus of the viewer despite the chart title. There’s a reason for that. Because it’s a line chart, there’s a perception of movement (hence line charts being so effective for a time series). So our primary perception is the increase of earnings across time and the gap between the two genders is secondary.

By highlighting the gap between the two lines (and adding data labels) the story now becomes more about the % of differences between male and female earnings as stated in the title. The visualization is perceived as one item but the focus is on the gap instead of the lines.

This chart’s story is two simple truths:

• the gap between male and female earnings has decreased 3.6% in the last 11 years and
• earnings have increased at a steady rate for both genders since 2005.

By manipulating the data we can create completely different stories.

This chart gives the impression of a widening gap between the earnings of male and female even though the data labels clearly show the percentage as less. That’s because the data is cumulative. Each year’s earnings is added to all the previous year’s earnings (known as a running total) to end with the total earnings for all 11 years. This is a potentially misleading chart since viewers may not take time to absorb the details required to understand it.

In this chart it appears that female’s earnings are better than male’s. That’s because it’s charting the percentage of growth in earnings and is using a truncated vertical axis. So while it’s true that female’s earnings have increased slightly more than male’s, the difference in the growth is nowhere near bringing parity to the earnings between the genders. This is also a potentially misleading chart.

Like I said at the beginning of this article, every one of these charts are “truthful” but, as you can see, there can be lots of versions of the truth. How you decide to correlate, transform, aggregate, and visualize data has a great impact on how someone perceives the story. And while it might be tempting to have your data shown in such a way that it supports your beliefs, isn’t it better (and more ethical) to show the data in as clear and unbiased way as possible?

So how can you tell your data’s story?

1. First, consider what your data is about. My example was pretty straightforward, the difference between male and female’s median salary for the last 11 years.
2. Next, decide how you manipulate the data in relation to your intended audience. In my examples, while calculating the percentage of difference between the genders was useful, transforming the data to running totals and percentage of growth was potentially misleading. I’m a huge fan of the KISS principle. It means Keep It Simple, Stupid.
3. Finally, consider your visualizations carefully. Start with your main title, then imagine your visual without any other text. Your audience is going to expect the “picture” of the chart to tell the story of your title. Strive for simple truths.

# The Fibonacci Method of Dealing with Difficult Clients

I love a good Fibonacci sequence, especially one with humor. And a friend (thanks, Rob) recently shared a priceless pricelist that did just that.

We’ve all dealt with those folks who want to be much more involved in the process than is good for them or you. These are typically the ones who want you to bling out every design within an inch of it’s life. They’ll want 3D rotation, shadows, reflections, soft glows, and any other number of effects in an effort to make their visualizations more exciting; obfuscation of the information be damned.

This graphic designer’s pricelist posted on Reddit reflects the frustration of dealing with this type of client by using the Fibonacci sequence to exponentially increase prices based on the level of client interference.

While I certainly understood and enjoyed the humor, I thought “If you’re going to use a Fibonacci sequence, it should be in a spiral” and I set out to do just that.

Since I’d never created a spiral (or rose or fan) chart before, I shopped the web and found this fantastic tutorial by Andy Pope. I’ll admit it took me more than a few moments to understand it, but once I did I realized my challenge would be determining what values to use for the percentage of the radius (the length from the center point to the outer edge of the circle) for each slice. Using the standard percentage as you would for pie chart slices yielded a chart so small as to be useless. I decided I wanted the highest value to be 100% so all I had to do was divide all the values by 3400. This is the spiral chart I created using these values. The ratio is accurate for both the angle of the slices as well as the length of the radius.

And there’s nothing wrong with this chart, but it’s not as attractive a spiral as I’d hoped for and the slices for the first three values are all but invisible. I decided extreme accuracy of the radius length wasn’t as important to me as long as the slice angles were accurate and the radius length still reflected the exponential increase of the values. To that end I went back to my spreadsheet and used the standard percentages plus a weighted value of  .61 (making the highest value 100%). Now the first 61% of the radius length for each slice is equidistant and the last 40% reflects the ratio. Basically I exploded the spiral by 61%. This gave me a more pleasing spiral that still manages to impart the information effectively, though technically less accurate.

I copied the charts into PowerPoint and I admit at this point I got a little lazy. I used a standard PowerPoint theme which I modified slightly rather than design my own. But I think the graphics nicely balances and reflects the curve of the spiral. I also used green to impart the financial aspect. I know it’s cliché, but hey, it works. I briefly considered using leader lines but they would have cluttered up the chart unnecessarily. The data labels were just too difficult to do in Excel so I added them with textboxes in PowerPoint and spaced them appropriately. You’ll notice I also “upscaled” some of the terms.

# The Power of Patterns in Visual Communications

Patterns are everywhere and even where they aren’t, we’ll make them up. This is because all animals are hard-wired to find patterns through our sensory input. It’s all about survival. Our skill at pattern recognition means capitalizing on opportunities and coping with challenges.

All visual communications use patterns whether purposefully designed or not. I’m sure you’ve seen designs with unintentional patterns such as Business Insider’s 15 Worst Corporate Logo Fails.

Data visualizations are reliant on pattern recognition. A chart interprets measurable values as a visual image. This in turn allows us to recognize patterns for the purposes of making comparisons, identifying outliers, etc.

The interactive tutorial below introduces some of the scientific theories behind pattern recognition and how to use that knowledge to improve the clarity of visual communications products, especially data visualizations. To view the tutorial in full screen, click here. All opinions expressed in the tutorial are my own.

# The Little Black (and Blue or White and Gold) Dress

On February 26, 2015 a simple picture of a dress sparked a viral debate with millions of people arguing over whether the dress is black and blue or gold and white. Even in my own household both my daughters saw the dress as gold and white, while I saw only black and blue. The phenomenon of the dress goes to the heart of this site, it’s all about visual perception.

In a Buzz Feed news article, Cedar Riener, associate professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College says “We are always making decisions about the quantity of light that comes into our retina. This light, called luminance, is always a combination of how much light is shining on an object and how much it reflects off of the object’s surface. In the case of the dress, some people are deciding that there is a fair amount of illumination on a blue and black (or less reflective) dress. Other people are deciding that it is less illumination on a white/gold dress (it is in shadow, but more reflective).”

In the same article, the dress phenomenon, according to neuroscientist Dale Purves of Duke University, “shows how strongly people are wedded to the idea that colors are properties of objects, when they are in fact made up by the brain.”

As presentation designers, this event showcases the importance of ensuring there is no ambiguity in our visuals if we want to guarantee clarity of our message. On the other hand, look at the “buzz” this photo has generated, including it’s own Wiki page. With a judiciously placed ambiguous image you could leave your audience with a lot to talk about. Artist Rob Gonsalves has some amazing optical illusion photos that would be perfect for this purpose.

# Can You See What I ‘m Hearing?

The more I learn about visual perception, the more I believe we don’t see at all, we perceive.

In the picture at left, Project Runway’s Season 12 Designer Justin LeBlanc is helping his model into a beautiful faux fur gown, right? Wrong. The gown is actually made from thousands of test tubes. But our brain translates this particular texture as soft fur because that is what we’ve experienced though both our touch as well as sight. Justin engaged our sense of touch (through familiarity) and fooled our eye.

In truth, while our eyes see, our brain’s perceive with all our senses, not just our eyes. And sometimes that means when other senses come into play, it can drastically change what we think we’re seeing.

For example, by simply adding a small sound you can completely change what your audience perceives. You can download the PowerPoint presentation to see what I mean from here: http://sdrv.ms/1eksk6r (and it must be downloaded since Web Apps will not support a looping slideshow). It has only one slide. This particular example was inspired by an episode of Brain Games, which I mentioned in a previous post. If you watch the slide with your sound muted, the two balls will appear to cross over each other. But if you watch it with sound on, the balls will appear to bounce off one another. Try watching it with sound and without sound and you’ll see how dramatic the difference is. Just by adding elements that engage our other senses, you can change (and enhance) what your audience sees.

Ironically, the designer Justin LeBlanc is deaf and this particular dress represents his adjustment to having a cochlear implant. I’d say he did an amazing job with that inspiration. And taught us all a little lesson in perception.

# Using PowerPoint to Improve Lives

Today is the first day of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) and I’m reminded of my roots for the Microsoft PowerPoint MVP award. In the early 2000s government agencies were mandated to make all our electronic communications what is called 508 compliant. This means all electronically published items need to work with assistive technology, most notably screen readers. My mission was to ensure that Office documents and presentations were compliant. While Microsoft did a fantastic job of making sure persons using assistive technology could use the applications, there was literally no documentation for making sure the end products were compliant. I found myself not only on the bleeding edge, it was more like the hemorrhaging edge with pressure to resolve it every day.

Through the wonderful folks at EASI, I obtained my certificate in Accessible Information Technology and found an incredibly motivated group of testers who helped me identify and document exactly how to make accessible presentations and documents. Since then I’ve taught many classes on how to create accessible documents and presentations and I’m proud to say the Office.com site still carries my articles:

While they were written for PowerPoint 2003, the concepts and techniques are still valid for all versions of PowerPoint.

In 2009, thanks to Ric Bretschneider, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to contribute to a wonderful add-in that allows users to sub-title their presentations. The add-in is available at: Sub-titling text add-in for Microsoft PowerPoint (STAMP) and is a terrific addition to produce presentations for the hearing impaired or for persons who speak a different language. The add-in is for PowerPoint 2010 or higher, but if you’re using an older version of PowerPoint, see my article on Adding captions, annotations, or subtitles to presentations.

In the 10+ years since I first received MVP recognition, I’ve turned most of my attention to areas where my skills truly lie, information design and data visualizations. But I’ve never lost my passion for advocating how PowerPoint can improve the lives of persons with physical challenges. A person who is visually impaired can create their own visual aids with PowerPoint. And that sentence is not an oxymoron. How wonderful that PowerPoint can give that individual just that much more independence.

I’ve also received many testimonials from parents, teachers and others who’ve used PowerPoint to effect a change in someone’s life. For example the mom who used PowerPoint to help her autistic son learn to speak, the teacher who used PowerPoint to help her special needs class learn math and, most profound of all, the father who created a looping PowerPoint of pictures that when you clicked the slide an audio message matching the picture would play.  He put this PowerPoint on a tablet PC attached to his severely disabled daughter’s wheelchair. She would watch the images loop and when one she wanted was displayed, she could tap it and it would play, “I’m hungry”, “I love you, Mom”, etc. Since she could not talk, PowerPoint quite literally gave this young girl a voice. How amazing is that? Is it any wonder I still continue to make myself available to help anyone who wants to use PowerPoint to help improve someone’s life?

Keep in mind most of us are challenged in some way or another even if it isn’t readily apparent. I myself am so vertically challenged I have to kick a stool around my kitchen just to cook dinner or put away dishes. And even if you don’t have challenges now, I assure you, down the road, you will. None of us are exempt from the effects of age. So celebrate NDREAM with me and recognize what people can do.

Do you have your own story to share about how PowerPoint improved your life or someone else’s life? I’d love to hear about it.

Disclaimer:  This site was prepared or accomplished by Glenna Shaw in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed on this site are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the United States government.

# A TV Series for Presenters and Presentation Designers

You might not believe it, but National Geographic’s Season 2 of Brain Games is a near perfect resource for presenters and presentation designers. While not perfectly scientifically accurate, the series contains a wealth of information about how our brain processes information and it’s delivered in an entertaining format. This is invaluable information if you are a presenter or presentation designer.

The official Brain Games web site has video clips, articles and the schedule for all 12 episodes. Amazon provides the series in both DVD and streaming format. Episodes are also available through NatGeo’s YouTube Channel for \$1.99 per episode.

In addition to the series episodes, National Geographic’s Education web site has more resources on how your brain works and, finally, if you’re curious to see how your own brain stacks up, discover your own brain profile at the Interactive Brain Games web site. I highly recommend you watch the episodes first though or you might find you’re not as clever as you thought you were.

# Cloudy with a Chance of Inspiration

I love TEDTalks and I especially enjoyed a talk from the TEDGlobal 2013 event in June.  Quoting the site: “You don’t need to plan an exotic trip to find creative inspiration. Just look up, says Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. As he shares charming photos of nature’s finest aerial architecture, Pretor-Pinney calls for us all to take a step off the digital treadmill, lie back and admire the beauty in the sky above.”  I highly encourage you to take a breath and enjoy Gavin’s talk for yourself.

As I was watching the video I was reminded of a presentation that I made for a friend a few years ago.  He was speaking on the topic of Cloud Computing at the Green Computing Conference. Using PowerPoint 2010, I created a presentation where his content tumbled and flew through the sky.  The result was a light and breezy presentation that was unique but professional.

I had the opportunity to show a presentation using this same technique at The Presentation Summit and I noticed admit the ooo’s and ah’s of the audience, it’s a format that makes people smile.

Inspired by Gavin’s talk on clouds, I decided to create and share a Cloudy PowerPoint template.  It’s a deceptively simple template but when used correctly really allows you to Wow! your audience.  The key is the fade background portion of the Dynamic Content Transitions available in PowerPoint 2010 and 2013.  By alternating the cloud background a subtle sense of movement is achieved without conscious awareness by the audience. Like the magician’s redirection trick discussed in a previous blog entry, the “front” portion of the Dynamic Content Transition provides the obvious dynamic movement of the content through the sky.  You can learn more about using PowerPoint’s transitions by viewing my tutorial, The Beauty of Transitions in PowerPoint.

The template is shown below, but alas Web Apps cannot display the Dynamic Content Transitions.  To view (and use) the template, you’ll need to click on the menu icon (on the navigation bar below), download a copy and run the presentation using the full PowerPoint 2010 or 2013 application.  You can also download directly using this link.  Directions for using the template are included on the slides.

Enjoy the video, enjoy the template and enjoy watching the clouds.

# Kill the Jerk (in PowerPoint Animations)

Many of you may have noticed that animations that run smoothly in PowerPoint 2007 now have a noticeable jerk when played in PowerPoint 2010 and PowerPoint 2013.  The good news is there’s a work-around to the problem.

Both PowerPoint MVPs Troy Chollar and Geetesh Bajaj have published explicit directions on how to apply the work-around to their blogs and, rather than reinvent the wheel, I encourage you to check out their posts:

Jerky Animations in PowerPoint 2010 and 2013

Stop PowerPoint from Getting the Animation Jitters!

Many thanks Troy and Geetesh for the posts and Amy, Chris Mahoney and Steve Rindsberg for the work-around.

Don’t feel comfortable editing the registry yourself?  Run OfficeOne’s handy SpriteClipping utility.  It will automatically make the change if you’re using PowerPoint 2010 or PowerPoint 2013.  Make sure PowerPoint is closed before running the utility.  Thanks for making it easy for us, Chirag.

# Infographics – When Familiarity Doesn’t Breed Contempt

Infographics are a hot topic these days, but the truth is infographics have been around for more than 30,000 years. From the first moment a person drew a picture with a stick in the dirt we’ve been using infographics.  Infographics are simply images used to tell a story.  Those images can be anything from drawings, symbols, photos, charts and even letters of a language.  They are all a means to visually communicate.

The key to effective infographics is familiarity to your audience.  Consider the petroglyphs found in caves.  Some images are easily interpreted, such as the story of a hunt showing stick figures with spears and images of animals.  Other images, like spirals and the outlines of hands, are less clear.  We can guess what the artist meant, but we can’t really know for sure. Additionally many of these images are drawn very close together or right on top of one another, increasing the difficulty in understanding the message.

The same concept applies to written languages, we must understand the symbol (or letter) and how each symbol is grouped with other symbols to understand the message.  Many of the ancient languages did not use spacing which makes it additionally challenging for experts to translate.

When used effectively, infographics are a very powerful medium for telling your story.  The right infographic can  transcend language barriers allowing your message to be universally understood by all who view it.  For example, the image of a happy face is easily recognized globally across all races, cultures, genders and even ages.  The smallest child will recognize a happy face even when it’s nothing more than a circle with two dots for eyes and a curved line for the smile.

Familiarity is one of the Gestalt Principles of Perception and, unfortunately, one of the weakest principles.  As I’ve illustrated in my narrative, even if the audience is completely familiar with the images and symbols used, the message can become muddied when the principle of proximity is not used correctly.  By effectively applying the principles of perception to your infographics you can achieve pragnanz, the perfect clarity of your message.  If you aren’t familiar with the Gestalt Principles of Perception, I invite you to view my tutorial, The Gestalt of Slides.

I’ve recently written a series of articles for creating infographics using PowerPoint 2013.  Although these articles are specific to techniques in PowerPoint, the methodology is also applicable to other tools.

PowerPoint 2013 Visualizations: Infographics

These articles also introduce you to the Hierarchy of Knowledge and explain how using infographics can transform your data to wisdom.