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Data that sticks: Tips on how to visually communicate your data

By Somongkol Teng

Charting goals and progress - pen and ruler with graph on paper

As a program evaluator, I’m often approached for assistance with data collection, analysis, and most importantly, reporting. People often tell me they can't create eye-catching reports or slides because they don't know graphic design or aren't computer-savvy. Good data visualization and communication require more than good computer skills; similarly, a visually appealing slide deck or report doesn’t always imply effective communication. 

In this blog post, I’ll share with you five tips for how you can effectively communicate your data visually.

Think of your audience(s)

Different audiences (e.g. community leaders, funders, staff, parents, youth, etc.) all have different interests or needs, which can affect the choice of format and data you develop for them. A county commissioner, for example, may prefer a high-level overview of the data, whereas program staff may want something more specific, such as how to improve their program. By knowing exactly what your audience needs or cares about, you can tailor your presentation or report to be as effective as possible. My colleagues Sam Grant and Erin Kelly-Collins have developed an excellent stakeholder analysis tool you can use to figure this out.

Use visuals

Did you know that at least 65% of humans are "visual learners" and that we remember images better than words? According to a 2014 study conducted by a group of MIT researchers, our brain can process images up to 600 times faster than text. In addition, citing 11 different studies, Clark and Mayer (2016) asserted that text paired with images improved comprehension by up to 89%.

Your visual choices can come in different forms. Besides standard Excel charts and graphs, icons and symbols are also good for visually representing data because they're minimalistic and offer the perfect visual balance to offset your content. Other visuals, such as maps, diagrams, and timelines, also enable information to be presented in more engaging ways than long blocks of text.

Two examples of icon use
Examples of icon use


Use more white space. By removing clutter from your graphs, you can help your readers understand your key messages more easily and quickly. Say goodbye to those unnecessary gridlines, words and legends that require back-and-forth reading, and instead label your data directly. Check out Stephanie Evergreen’s dataviz checklist for more insights.

Apply colors

Colors and shading can direct readers' attention to the key message from the data. Adding color to the bar(s) you want readers to focus on while graying out the others, as shown in the bar chart example below, is one effective way to communicate your message.

Graph showing an example of color use

Last but not least, tell the story

A good data visualization should tell the readers a clear story. You can do this by simply stating the takeaway in the chart title, or by directly labeling a bar or line with what you want to communicate.

These tips are by no means exhaustive, but I hope you’ll find them useful. Please share your additional dataviz ideas in the comment section below - I’d love to hear them!

-- Somongkol Teng, Extension educator

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  1. Thank you, Mongkol! I had always wondered where all of these good visuals came from on different evaluation reports I have seen. I had no idea they were called "icons." I just took a look at Microsoft Words, and sure enough, "icons" are listed under the "Insert" tab. I have no idea how many times I must have seen that label and just skipped over it!

    1. Hi Dylan! Along with icons, you can now find free stock images in the Office365 suite as well. If you need even more choices for icons, I recommend you check out as well. They claim they have icons for almost anything there. :)


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