445: How to Make Your Charts Awesome with Stephanie Evergreen

By May 31, 2019Podcasts

 

 

Stephanie Evergreen says: "When we ask people to fix graphs... what we have to do first is understand our point."

Stephanie Evergreen discusses the importance of effective data visualization and shares tips and tricks for creating charts that best communicate data findings.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How charts can transform culture
  2. How to make use of tools you already have to make great visuals
  3. How to determine the most appropriate chart for your data

About Stephanie

Dr. Stephanie Evergreen is an internationally-recognized data visualization and design expert. She has trained future data nerds worldwide through keynote presentations and workshops, for clients including Mastercard, Adobe, Verizon, Head Start, American Institutes for Research, Rockefeller Foundation, Brookings Institute, and the United Nations. She writes a popular blog on data presentation at StephanieEvergreen.com. Her two books on designing high-impact graphs, slideshows, and reports both hit #1 on Amazon bestseller lists weeks before they were even released. This Spring Dr. Evergreen is publishing the second edition of one of those bestsellers and a brand new sketchbook with templates for making infographics and dashboards.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Stephanie Evergreen Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Stephanie, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Stephanie Evergreen
It’s a pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your good stuff. I think we’re going to get real dorky with this one, with the charts, and the graphs, and data. But I want to go back in time first to your first job, which I understand is at McDonald’s, and you were actually a vegetarian at the same time. How did that go?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah. Well, you know, as teenagers do, I think you just get whatever job you can because you’re desperate for money. So, McDonald’s was close by my house and it seemed like a good idea. But, yeah, I was vegetarian and I thought I would be running the cash register or something, but they put me in the kitchen, I think, because they could sense I could handle a lot of pressure. That’s my guess.

But it was just the worst place to be. You know, cooking burgers all day. So, I will say I ate a lot of french fries because that was vegetarian, so that counted. But, yeah, I think a lot of us are there. We’re in jobs, and we just kind of do what we’re told even if it doesn’t totally line up with our ideal situation. So, I guess that’s why people come listen to you and your podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Thank you. Well, I think that is one of the reasons, and I think that’s kind of the name of the game in terms of early career isn’t quite ideal, and then you learn and acquire skills, and tools, and you’re able to get better and better fits which are more rewarding as time goes by. Hopefully, that’s the trajectory.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yes, indeed. You know, it’s so funny, because when I think back to that time, I couldn’t even conceptualize that the thing I’m doing now was even a job.

Pete Mockaitis
Is something wrong with that?

Stephanie Evergreen
Well, I mean, this was like, we’re talking 1995, and PowerPoint back then was, I think, when I went to college, even after that time when I was doing presentations, was transparencies. You know what I mean?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Stephanie Evergreen
So, I didn’t even think about data, or graphs, or that I could make a whole career teaching people how to do this better. It’s just the technology wasn’t even there for us to dream of it yet.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s so funny when you talked about the transparencies. I remember at Bain we would hear the war stories from the partners, it’s like, “Back in my day, when I was a consultant, we had to spend our time measuring transparencies with a ruler, or cutting them out with an X-ACTO knife, and then putting them all together.” We’re like, “Wow, that is wild.” I just figured you’d use fewer slides but, no, you just spend forever making them.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, it was little rough and tumbles. Technology has helped us but, in some ways, I think we’re still probably putting in just as much labor to get our stuff looking great, you know.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, totally. Well, so let’s hear about your book here, Effective Data Visualization: The Right Chart for the Right Data. What’s the scoop here?

Stephanie Evergreen
Well, yeah, so the big idea is that we can tell better, more useful data stories if we just learn a little bit about the chart choices that are out there today, and when to use them, and that’s it’s totally doable to make those awesome charts right inside Excel. And it’s really focused on that because I think that people need to know how to be the masters of the tools they already own, and that great visuals don’t necessarily require a graphic designer or someone who knows how to code.

Most of my readers, most of my clients, especially in that Fortune 500 arena, are working at their tight deadlines where they’ve got to turn on slide decks really fast for these decision-making meetings, and they need to know how to just use the tools that they’ve already got in front of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, you’re making them in Excel, not PowerPoint.

Stephanie Evergreen
Well, all of Excel is baked right into PowerPoint so it’s kind of the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I hear you there. So, then, maybe we won’t dork out on PowerPoint versus Keynote versus Prezi versus think-cell versus Mekko Graphics versus Illustrator. But if you have a one-minute commentary we can obtain.

Stephanie Evergreen
Well, I do work a lot in slide show arenas as well, and I’m not even familiar with all those. I think you know more about those topics than I do. But the biggest strength of whatever software you choose is that you have to be able to collaborate with other people on it. So, that means they also need to own it, first of all, and that poses some limitations because not all these softwares are distributed as widely as like maybe PowerPoint is. And people need to be able to edit things in it like charts.

That’s always been one of my frustrations with Illustrator. It’s that it’s a picture file. So, you put in a slide, and if anybody needs to like adjust one number or a decimal point to do something, you have to go back and ask somebody to remake it. So, not all software can be editable and widely-distributed, so that’s why I tend to favor the Microsoft stuff because people have it, and we just need to know what to do with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Fair enough. So, now, this book is your second edition. Can you tell us, did you learn any kind of hard lessons as you were interacting with the marketplace about what’s tricky, confusing, missing, that kind of showed up in the second edition?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, I’ll say three things. So, first of all, the first one was printed in two colors. So, like a spot color of blue, and then black and white. And even though you’d be looking at the same screenshot in PowerPoint that you’d be seeing in front of you on your screen, it’s just harder to see it if it isn’t in color. So, this time around, everything is in full color. That’s a huge difference.

People were asking more questions about interactivity, so there’s a whole chapter in there on how to build interactive dashboards in Excel. Dashboards are, I think, one of the bigger trends that’s been coming out in the business world lately. Everybody wants their sexy dashboards, so we put together some tools on that. And I’m including a couple of new graph types that I think, since the first edition, people have been more exposed to them and so they understand them better, and they’re getting more popular.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, which are these?

Stephanie Evergreen
One of them would be the waterfall chart. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this one.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes.

Stephanie Evergreen
Okay, yes. So, it was pioneered, at least legend goes, that it was invented at McKinsey, and they were using it with all of their consulting groups to show where the change over time actually broke down. Like, where increases and decreases occurred. And I think for people who were not looking at it in a business context, they don’t easily wrap their brains around what they’re seeing.

But we’ve been seeing them more and more commonly, like in the newspaper. I saw one that was trying to explain Brexit. So, the more that we see them and the more that we’re exposed to them, I think people outside of very specific corporate financial settings are able to understand them. So, I included that sort of thing this time around.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, it’s really funny. I’m thinking back to my Bain days. We’re talking about charts here. I remember I thought the Rolls Royce of charts, at least as far as we were concerned, and like the grand daddy of them, was the Marimekko. And most don’t even know what that is. It’s like a rectangular sort of like a pie chart, except you’re describing proportions on two dimensions. So, we might see the proportion of the engine market for aircraft versus motorcycles versus cars versus trucks, and then, within each of those, the proportion that each competitor has.

I remember at one point there was a client who just refused to many parts of those. And there was a big debate in our team, like one of them said, “It’s the best way to show it. But they hate it. We can’t do it.” So, yeah, emotions can run high.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, and people they really feel strongly about the things that they’ve been used to seeing for a long time. So, there is a fine line between where do we push what’s actually best practice versus respect where people are at. And it is, it can be hard to know. You kind of got to feel it out a little bit. And that’s why I think we have to have lots of choices so that we don’t just always think that there is one option.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s handy. So, you’ve also got a “Data Visualization Sketchbook” that’s accompanying this. And what do we see in a sketchbook?

Stephanie Evergreen
Well, it’s kind of the opposite of making graphs in Excel. It’s encouraging us to turn off our computers. So, the sketchbook is full of templates so that you can use pencil in the sketchbook and actually draw stuff out. And the purpose here is actually to let us think. Because I think what happens a lot of the times is that we just go straight to PowerPoint, or we go straight to whatever software we’re using, it doesn’t even really matter, and we just start clicking buttons. Like, “Okay, maybe I’ll try this chart. Okay, maybe I’ll try this chart.”

And we’re just heading straight to the button, clicking before we’ve even really thought about what we need to do, or show, or the big picture of the whole presentation. So, what we see when we look at the research around sketching is that when we take out all the distracting like menus and buttons and fun things that we can click, and we just let ourselves have some empty space, that’s when our working memory actually does processing, and it lets us think.

So, the sketchbook is like your excuse to get out of the office and go draw for a while. You’re going to come back with so many better ideas than you would have if you would’ve just stared at your computer screen.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. And I remember we used to sort of sketch them out roughly on Post-it Notes and then re-arrange the Post-it Notes, they’re nice like big rectangular ones, and say, “Oh, no, I don’t want this type or with that type.” And it was fun. It made you feel a little bit like an artist, you know, who’s designing something, as opposed to a computer cog.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, exactly. Well, and I always say you don’t have to be a good artist. You just have to know what that little blob represents later when you’re back at your computer. So, the sketchbook has templates, it’s got graph paper in it and dot grid paper, which is just fun. There are dashboard templates in like several varieties. There are varieties of handout templates, we’ve got a slide guide in there, and a report structure in case you’re doing like those big long report pages.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. Well, so we’re to get into the ins and outs of all kinds of stuff here but maybe you could frame up the why for us. So, yeah, beyond you and I just being dorks for cool charts. What’s really the value or the impact on an organization when it comes to having the right chart for the right data versus maybe a suboptimal chart for the given data? What does that result in?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, I know it seems so minor. Like, let’s learn how to push this button inside PowerPoint. But the thing we get out of those minor little details is culture change, and the way that organizations operate, and how people inside those organizations talk to each other, and all of that affects bottom line.

Like, I’m sure that you’ve experienced this many times, probably your listeners as well. I was just on the phone with a client this week who told me that the CEO of his company was getting frustrated by the bad presentations that they saw because he knew that they were missing opportunities to move good ideas forward. Like, it was getting lost in all the noise that was happening in these bad slides and the cluttery graphs. They’re making the point kind of hard to see.

The CEO said that they were in meetings that were taking like five times too long. They never evhad time to get to the gist because they didn’t even make it that far down the agenda. It’s such a waste of the precious time we get with people to confuse them and to head them off in the wrong direction when we could just be making the decisions that we need to make in getting to market faster.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m with you. That’s good. Well, so then I was just going to ask, you know, when can visualization be harmful or counterproductive? And it sounds like that’s it right there. It’s like, “You’ve made a big, freaking complex and intricate and confusing chart that we’re all just sort of squinting, and leaning forward, and scratching our heads in a meeting, and our time is getting consumed by it.” But are there other times you’d recommend, “Hey, don’t even start making a chart. Just be chartless and you’ll be better off”?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yes. Oh, my gosh, there are so many times I think we’ll just be better off. First of all, if there’s not an obvious point to be made, don’t make a chart because people are going to look at the chart, that’s how our brains are built, we’re built to look at pictures. So, if we show people a bunch of pictures that don’t have any kind of obvious point, that’s how we get to the confusion, right? So, unless there’s actually a story, like a headline, a takeaway idea that you’re presenting, that that chart supports, just don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, I’m with you. Very good. All right. So, that’s your first point, is to have a point.

Stephanie Evergreen
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve got something that we’re trying to say here as opposed to, “Hey, what the heck? I can just push this button and it has more colors than the other way.” So, very good. Well, then tell us what makes the difference between a good and a bad chart? What are sorts of like the top mistakes you see over and over again that need to be stopped?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, I think that the biggest mistake people have is they jump straight to what’s the best chart type. And this happens to me all the time. I see it every single day because people will try to pick my brain all the time. It’s kind of like asking for some free consulting, right? So, people will approach me, and be like, “So, Stephanie, can I pick your brain?” And I’m like, “Oh, this is like I could bill for this, but go ahead.” And they’ll say something totally random, like, “My boss wants me to show our four different income revenues over the last eight quarters across our six departments. What’s the best chart type?” And I’m like, “Pfft, I don’t know.”

And everybody wants to, they want to run to what’s the best chart type. And when we ask people to fix graphs, they focus on chart type, when what we have to do first is understand our point. And that’s hard because it means you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. And people don’t always know it that well, or they are afraid to say their point.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, because they’re going to offend somebody. If I say, “This division has been shrinking while all the others have been growing.” And the guy who runs that division is in the room, and I single that out, it’s like, “You’re a jerk. He’s got it in for him. And now he’s my sworn nemesis.”

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, it’s true. So, back to when can data visualization be harmful, well, this is definitely one of those times when you’re telling people truths that they really don’t want to hear. It’s hard. So, I think we’ve got to wordsmith our points really carefully because I know that it can be political. I’ve got plenty of people who tell me, “We just cannot say things that straightforward around here. We kind of dance around it a little bit.” So, yeah. But I’ve also seen people who have intentionally, perhaps, shown stuff that looked cluttery or confusing so that they were hiding the points that they should’ve been showing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, you know, I have a flashback all of a sudden, you triggered something. I remember we were working for a client who built exhibits for like tradeshows, so big, hunk, and cool-looking things that you pass by like at the consumer electronic show or something. And so, they were not doing super well. And one of their people made a slide that graphed the growth rate of the industry over time, and then graph-pointed downward, so it’s like, “As you can see, this is a bad industry right now.”

But that was very misleading because the numbers were all positive. It’s still growing. It’s just growing more slowly now than it was, so you should also be growing. And then we sort of had to counter that point. And, sure enough, it resulted in some poor decisions because of like, “Hey, what can we do? It’s bad economy, bad market. Our hands are tied,” as opposed to, “No, step it up and get after it because there’s opportunity that we’re not snagging here.”

Stephanie Evergreen
You said so many interesting things in here. So, first of all, in that last piece that you just said, it’s really in how we frame the takeaway. The takeaway could be, “Things are really dropping.” Or the takeaway could be, “We have an opportunity here.” So, it’s really in how you frame it. And I think we if don’t take that opportunity to frame the story and to frame the takeaway, people will run off in all kinds of different directions. And that’s the last thing we want them to do.

The other thing that was interesting about what you brought up is that what we see in the research is that people, especially if they’re not like the total nerds on the data topic, well, they just see big picture. So, they would just see this line going down, and they’re like, “Oh, dear,” and they wouldn’t be thinking as carefully about it as you were, where you’re like, “Well, you know, like it’s just the rate of change here, really, this is what we should be talking about.” And they don’t look at things like the scale that was used and stuff like that. So, I do think that it’s easy for people to manipulate data and have it cast a certain story just by small formatting tweaks that most people are likely to miss.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Boy, I’ve got a flashback here. I remember once we were in a meeting and someone had, talk about the formatting and the axes, it’s like someone had done the little thing where we jumped from zero to like 300 on the Y-axis. And then in mid-meeting the partner stopped the guy who was presenting on our team, and he said, “What is this? What is this Business Week-style garbage doing here?” He’s like, “I don’t ever want to see that again.”

Stephanie Evergreen
Wow.

Pete Mockaitis
He’s like, “That is misleading and I’ll have no part of it.” It was so intense.

Stephanie Evergreen
And I love that he threw Business Week under the bus in that one. That’s hilarious.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t actually know if Business Week does that a lot.

Stephanie Evergreen
I don’t know either. That’s funny. And we just saw like this is making the rounds very recently on Twitter, a climate scientist who posted a picture, you know there’s a pretty famous climate change graph called the hockey stick graph, Al Gore showed it in his famous Inconvenient Truth and it’s basically how global temperatures have stayed pretty flat, but in the past few years it’s like it just skyrocketed. And there was a climate scientist, really recently, who just redid the graph so that the Y-axis starts at zero. And when you do that, it’s a flat line, you don’t see any change whatsoever. And he’s like, “See, climate change is a hoax.”

So, it’s incredibly common and incredibly easy to manipulate the data to have it say whatever you want. So, I think that with all of this discussion, there is also this moral and ethical obligation that we have to the truth. And it’s difficult because everybody interprets the truth however it’s truthful to them. But that’s always going to be really tricky.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. I don’t remember who said it, but I think they said, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Now, that’s well-said, and that’s true.

Stephanie Evergreen
I like that.

Pete Mockaitis
The numbers are accurately saying what they’re saying but you’ve chosen those ones, you chose to present them in that way for a particular agenda which could be helpful or hurtful. So, okay, so enough reminiscing and ranting.

Stephanie Evergreen
Well, we see that in the research that people are convinced by charts. So, there is a study that was published, I’ll have to remember exactly what it was, where it was published, but it presented the exact same data to study subjects, it’s just that one had a chart. And the chart didn’t add any new information. It was just a visual of the stuff that was already in the narrative anyway. So, it was just the exact same narrative, just one had an additional repetitive picture. And people voted the one that had the picture as more trustworthy and believable, because we just were wired to like believe data.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s striking. Well, okay, so then let’s get back into making good charts. So, the first point is to have a point. Don’t jump to the, “Hey, what chart type do I need?” but rather, “What’s the story? What’s the point? What is the main thing I’m trying to convey here?” And then once you’re clear on that, what’s the next step?

Stephanie Evergreen
I think it’s to know your audience. And sometimes your point changes depending on the audience you’re talking to, to be honest with you, but I think you got to know what their prior level of knowledge is. Like, are they’d big old nerds with me, and I can just talk about my P values? Or is it going to be somebody who is like data smart but not necessarily a nerd? Or am I talking to the public who tends to be folks who are data-scared?

The way that we show our data to them and even the words we use in our point is going to change depending on which group we’re talking to. And I think also, partly, one of the questions there is, “How willing are they to even engage with me?” Like, am I fighting a hard battle here to get people to even look at me, or are they begging for me to show up and give them this data?

All those things are going to factor into the chart that you eventually choose. So, I think once you know your audience pretty well and the point that you need to make to them, then you can start thinking about the right chart.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, let’s say we’ve done that, we’ve got the point, we’ve got the audience, now how do we go about choosing the chart?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, so I think that part of our determination there, and this is the way that the book is setup, is you have to know a little bit about the nature of your data, right? So, are you talking about survey responses here? Are we talking about parts of a whole? Are we trying to talk about how the trends over time? Once we know that sort of thing, then we can look at the chart choices that are available.

Even within some of those, once you think about maybe trends over time. There are lots of choices in there, and some are going to highlight certain angles of your story better than others do. So, we make our determinations there based on the point and the audience, and how much they’re able to read those graphs in the first place. Sometimes it’s a matter of how many datapoints we have to show that helps us determine what our graph type is going to be.

And then from there, the last step of the process, at least the way that I go about making graphs, is to sharpen up your point of it. And that usually requires having to strip out some of the clutter and some of noise that’s baked into our chart defaults. I’m talking about stuff like taking out check marks. And then really, really making your point obvious by using some color on the parts of the data that are matching your headline.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, so that’s great. And when it comes to these defaults, can you save new defaults?

Stephanie Evergreen
You can, yeah, at least in Excel. I’m not so sure about other graphing software that’s out there. But, yeah, you can. You can go through the process of making one amazing chart, and then make that your new default chart so that you don’t have to go through all of that elbow grease every single time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. And at Bain we used to use Mekko Graphics which I like because the default was just clean and sharp as opposed to a lot of times in Excel, PowerPoint, it’s like I’ve got all of these background lines engraved with things that just don’t need to go there. And because I was using it more than other software programs more often, it took me a while to figure out how make those go away. And I think I walked away thinking, “Excel sucks for making charts.” But you’re here to set me straight.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah. And we walk in the book through how to go about making those new templates so that you don’t have to go do all that cleanup work every single time. Because everybody is in this place where like, “My graphs have to be done tonight because my presentation is tomorrow.” And you just don’t have time to mess around with all that stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Exactly.

Stephanie Evergreen
And that’s why, that is exactly why people would go to things like a specialty software like Mekko graphics. Is that what you said it was called?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, because they might have some cleaner defaults. But the thing I like about Excel, I never really have understood if this is because Microsoft is so smart or so stupid, but you can hack Excel. It’s got some bad things built into the defaults but you can hack it and make it do things that it does not naturally do. Like, there are graph types that we introduced in the book that most people have probably never seen before that are so high-impact and powerful, but it’s just that we had to hack it from some existing graph types in Excel. And some of these other softwares that are out there for graphing won’t let you hack. It’s so user-friendly that you can’t get more out of it that you might want to get.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s very intriguing. Can you give us an example of a super high-impact chart type? It’s almost like the secret in and out menu or something about the graph there. So, things like high-impact chart and how do I secretly access it?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah. So, I’m going to say that in 2019 the Rolls Royce of graph types is going to be a dumbbell dot plot, and I’ll tell you what this means. It looks like a tiny little Popeye dumbbell where it’s like two circles connected by a line. And the reason it’s so powerful is because we interpret dots so well. We’ve seen plenty of research on how human brains interpret different graph types, and position is the easiest graph type for human brains to read.

Meaning, like we’re really good at seeing a dot’s position on an axis, even better than we are reading a bar chart which would be length. We’re really good at noticing position. We just don’t have a lot of position built into our default graphs. So, dumbbell dot plots are even better because it’s two dots showing position, and then a stick between the two. And the stick emphasizes the distance between these two datapoints.

And so, if you’ve got stories that are about like the gap that occurred between these two things, or the disparity we’re seeing between these two things, or how much growth occurred between these two datapoints, the dumbbell dot plot is the Rolls Royce of graph types to show that. And I think everybody has those stories about gap, or growth, or disparity.

So, this graph type is so amazing, and I ended up having to recommend it to everybody I ever consult with. And you are like, “How would I make this in Excel?” But it’s really just a hack of a line graph with markers.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. A line graph with markers, and you just sort of erase some things so that all that remains is your dumbbell.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, you have to erase some things, you have to add some things. It’s remarkably easy that we’re talking like under two minutes of formatting to make your first one, and then that could be a template too.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Stephanie, are you aware that, at least on my computer when I do a Google image search for dumbbell dot plot, the top three results are StephanieEvergreen.com?

Stephanie Evergreen
Well, I mean, I am a fan.

Pete Mockaitis
You are the dumbbell dot plot’s ambassador.

Stephanie Evergreen
Well, that’s great. I think I just came up with my next tattoo.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have tattoos?

Stephanie Evergreen
I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Are they charts?

Stephanie Evergreen
You know, one was a bit data-driven actually. I counted some things in my life for a while, and then I had that tattooed. So, yeah, you know, I am a nerd.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating. So, let’s see here. There’s so much good stuff. So, we talked through a little bit of what makes the difference, what’s the process. Would you say that there’s maybe like a quality control checklist you might recommend in terms of, “All right, after you’re done making your chart, here are the things you want to make sure you have done or not done”?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, I wrote a checklist. I think it has like 52 points on it. So, it’s not like just count them on our hand, but we broke out. I mean, I did my dissertation on this stuff so I was really down in the weeds of like what the research says about how charts can work best. And so, I broke that research out into 52 checkpoints, and it really is exactly what you’re saying.

Once your graph is finished, run it through these checkpoints, and make sure you’re hitting all the marks. And part of the checklist is about things like making sure you got the right chart type. Parts of it are about making sure you have a headline. But it also goes into stuff about like color, and the font sizes we should be using, and the order that we show the data and the graph, and how many decimal places we have to report to, and that sort of thing. So, we actually had a grad student who did her dissertation on this checklist.

Pete Mockaitis
On your checklist?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Stephanie Evergreen
And it worked out so well in her data that we have it turned it into an interactive website. I’ll send out the link. So, you just go the website, you upload an image of your graph, and it’ll walk you through all the checkpoints. Any place where you didn’t quite meet it, it will you a resource that shows you how to fix it.

Pete Mockaitis
That is really cool. And so, if you’ve got 52, I’ve got apply a little bit of 80/20 Rule magic here. Could you share, are there a couple of them that you see all the time that are very destructive? So, perhaps the most critical boxes to be checked in this checklist.

Stephanie Evergreen
I think the one I see, in addition to not having a good point, I think the one that I see that’s the most harmful is probably not tuning into color blindness.

Pete Mockaitis
Not turning into color blindness.

Stephanie Evergreen
Tuning into, like paying attention to.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, because color blindness is part of meeting the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and it sounds like so like technical but it is. We are required to make sure our stuff is accessible to people. And color blindness is one of those disabilities that is sort of invisible so that you don’t really know if anybody in your audience is color blind.

But the red-green color blindness is the most common form, and one in 10 white men in the U.S. are red-green color blind, one in six Japanese men are red-green color blind. So, when we show people red and green who are color blind, they see those as two shades of brown. And I think the red-yellow-green stuff like color system is so prevalent in so many organizations, and it is absolutely not compliant. It is absolutely not color blind-friendly, and it doesn’t work on black and white, and it doesn’t work for so many reasons but it’s so baked into our culture. That’s got to be the number one thing I see.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is striking. It seems like there’s a compelling headline for blog posters or something here, “How your charts are violating the law and you don’t even know it.”

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, you know what, it’s so true. Like, I have clients who come to me because they’ve been sued because the stuff that was on their website was not compliant.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow.

Stephanie Evergreen
And we are seeing that like more and more. There is a grocery store chain, was it Piggly Wiggly, or one of those down South, was sued. I think even Beyoncé was sued recently because her website wasn’t compliant. So, if it can happen to Beyoncé, it can happen to any of us.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good truism for life.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, this is the kind of only area where if it can happen to Beyoncé it can happen to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy. Well, so a few more things I want to make sure we tick through.

Stephanie Evergreen
Cool.

Pete Mockaitis
When it comes to slide headlines, it sounds like we’re on the same page with this, but I’ll let you say it. What should we do with slide headlines?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, it just helps you with your point.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. So, instead of saying, “Sales over time,” it should say what about the sales over time?

Stephanie Evergreen
Sales are going up over time.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Stephanie Evergreen
“Sales are going down over time.” “Sales has stayed the same over time.” “Sales have stayed the same and we need to do something that.” So, it can get a bit heavy-handed if you want it to. It doesn’t have to. It can simply be descriptive. It just needs to be an insight so that people know why the heck we’re looking at this thing, and what you want them to know.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And pie charts, why are they bad?

Stephanie Evergreen
Well, they don’t have to be bad. I’ve seen some pretty good ones, but I think the issue is when we try to cram a hundred datapoints, a hundred little slices into the pie. People can’t really read angle very well. Like I how I said earlier, position is great, length is okay, angle is bad. We’re not good at reading angles. If you only got a couple of slices in the pie, it’s going to be fine. But if you try to put a bunch more in there then we’re in some trouble.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’d recommend a stack bar chart instead?

Stephanie Evergreen
Sure, or simply a bar. I think pie charts, people like them because it shows that we’re talking about a 100% of the data, that the data totaled to 100. I’m not sure the fact that data totaled to a hundred is actually the lead story we really need to be trotting out. So, I’m okay with just turning it into a bar chart.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. And when it comes to, hey, you’ve got a boatload of texts, how do we visualize that? I guess you got a word cloud, but any tips for that or can we do any better?

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, so that’s one of the biggest changes in the second edition of the book. We had the beginnings of a quality in the chapter in the first edition and we scrapped it almost entirely, and rewrote it. There were like 15, 16 chart types in there for showing qualitative data. Word clouds are like at the bottom of the list. there are so many better ways to do it. Word cloud are a step up from just, “Let me give you a bunch of quotes,” because nobody can really read a bunch of quotes like that.

But there are so many cool options that are out there now, especially like some that keep things more purely qualitative and some that lately quantify and turn it into some numbers. There’s just a huge spectrum of choices. In fact, this book is the biggest compendium of qualitative visualization options that we’ve ever seen. So, we’re really excited to get this out into people’s hands.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, by “we” you mean mankind as a whole.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yes, humankind. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Even more in this. Well, very cool. All right. So, Stephanie, tell me, any final thoughts before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Stephanie Evergreen
I feel like I should say something here because you give me the opportunity to. So, I will say this, okay, one final thought on understanding your audience. This is my secret. Figure out what their burning questions are. Figure out what keeps this group up at night. Like, what are they worried about? Because then you come into your presentation with the answers to the things that keep them up at night. That’s how you get a promotion. Yeah, so this is how you have to structure everything that you do is to just answer your audience’s burning questions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Stephanie Evergreen
I don’t know that I have a quote as much as I have is some inspiration. So, is that okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Stephanie Evergreen
Okay. When I was doing the research for my sketchbook, I was looking at the old artists, Da Vinci, Picasso, Van Gogh, and they all drew. They sketched. Because when you sketch, you work out issues you don’t want to have to work out on expensive canvas with expensive paint. So, you get your space to breathe, and think, and to study your subject really, really well, and play around with ideas so that when you do have time in front of the canvass or in front of your dashboard software, your presentation software, it’s so efficient and fast and easy because you already have a plan in mind. So, yeah, that’s my inspiration. Let’s just do what Van Gogh did, except the not the cutting off the ear part.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Stephanie Evergreen
One of my favorite researchers is Richard Meyer. He’s got a book out, I believe, but also several published studies. He does a lot of like multimedia presentation study stuff, and all of his stuff has this little glimmer of humor to it that just makes me laugh. So, I’ll tell you about one. He had this study where he showed the audience like the typical death by bullet point. You know what I mean?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah. And at the end of the presentation, they gave the study subjects a survey on just like feelings, attitudes, stuff like that. And the audience was reporting mild to high levels of general annoyance with the speaker.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Stephanie Evergreen
Yeah, and they couldn’t put their finger on why because they’re like, “We’re design students,” so they weren’t like, “Oh, it’s ‘cause slides are so terrible.” They just left feeling like mild to high annoyance. And I feel like that’s the last thing we need to do. It’s already hard enough to get people to pay attention to us without annoying them, so let’s not add to it with bad slides.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good one. It explains maybe a real force behind annoyance, it would. And how about a favorite book?

Stephanie Evergreen
My current favorite book. I just finished one, it’s totally, well, probably unrelated to all the rest of this. But it was written by Cal Newport called Digital Minimalism and it’s about so related to this sketching stuff because it’s about how technology is interrupting our ability to think big. And he blames social media in particular because the whole thing was just a very fascinating read about how our minds are so filled with constant check-ins and updates from our aunts and second cousins that we lost our ability to think.

And it struck me because I think he’s got a lot of things he’s saying correct that are right in the book, but it struck me because I realized that everybody says their best ideas happen when they’re in the shower.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Stephanie Evergreen
Because that’s the one place you can’t take your phone. I was like, “Yeah, that’s when we think,” right, when we aren’t staring at something. So, anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Stephanie Evergreen
I’m going to say a tape measure. Believe it or not, I have to bust out my tape measure and measure things on my screen all the time. I want to make sure like everything is proportionate and accurate, and I will sometimes actually just get out my tape measure and make it happen.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. You know, there is a super genius at Nintendo who’s behind a lot of their hits like Zelda and Super Mario Brothers. I don’t remember his name. But that was one of his things because he would carry a tape measure with him everywhere he went, and ask people, “Hey, how long do you think this is?” which is like as he came, that’s what he did, and like, that’s pretty weird! But I think that’s connected to his genius so I’m going to give you that same credit there.

Stephanie Evergreen
Cool. I’ll take it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And how about a favorite habit?

Stephanie Evergreen
A favorite habit. I think my favorite habit will be going to the gym in the morning when I want to start my day, because I think all that fresh air and oxygen and endorphins just sets your brain up for smart thinking. Now, it doesn’t always help your hairstyle because then you’d have to shower and then go straight from there to like your work life. So, there are tradeoffs here, but I do think that the oxygen is helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with audiences and clients?

Stephanie Evergreen
You know, I think the thing that resonates with people the most is when someone complains that it seems like this slide is going to take a lot of work, and I’m like, “You know what? It’s your job.” Yeah, it’s going to take you a minute to put a good slide together, but also that’s what you’re paid to do. So, yeah, I’ll share lots of efficiency tips, but at the core, getting people to use our data for decisions is what we were hired to do.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Stephanie Evergreen
My website is going to be a great place, StephanieEvergreen.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Stephanie Evergreen
I would say find one baby step you can take at your office. It might be like, “All I can do is make a great title.” It might be, “I’m going to take that pie chart and recast it as something else.” It might be, “I’m going to go learn how to make a dumbbell dot plot.” And I do have instructions for that on my website. But I think that’s going to be my challenge. Go change one thing, and then like in another month change another. And then in like two years, you’ll have a whole revolution.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Stephanie, this has been lots of fun, and I wish lots of luck with the books “Effective Data Visualization” and the sketchbook, and all your adventures.

Stephanie Evergreen
Thank you so much for having me.

2 Comments

  • Karen Gallardo says:

    Pete – this episode was terrific! It felt like Stephanie was seated next to you and you were in a conversation – very easy banter and sharing of information, experience, and perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed, learned several new things and bought her new book and sketchbook. Well done and thank you!

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