When Good Information Goes Bad
A document that shows information poorly can easily take twice as long to read and understand than a document that shows information clearly (see ‘Ways people get it wrong’).
If that document is for the 15-person board, the extra time to read and absorb the poor document comes at quite a cost. However, showing information poorly not only costs money, it costs lives.
The world expert on information design is Edward Tufte and he famously showed that unclear charts by engineers failed to convince decision makers to abort the doomed 1986 space shuttle launch. The engineers had identified good reasons not to launch but the evidence and charts they presented to the launch controllers were poorly constructed. The next day, the shuttle exploded on take-off, killing seven people.
Every part of every business has to present information, both routine and non-routine, and in writing or as a presentation.
Showing information isn’t common sense, it is good sense. There are principles to follow and none is complex or rocket science. They are based on how people first react to facts and numbers, then scan, understand and remember them. Showing information is about communicating, not computing.
And it is not just about better graphs and tables, but about better words too, because often, the best way to explain something is not to improve the words but to get rid of them and do a table or graph instead. It is strange that most, if not all, report-writing courses ignore a major part of most reports – all the bits that aren’t words.
Clear information isn’t about remembering to state your sources or ensuring each axis has a label and showing information isn’t about nice colours and design frippery and decorations, despite the approach taken by some books which seem to believe that pretty and clear are tautological.
There are many benefits to showing information clearly. Your documents and analysis get read, they are more inviting for the reader. And the audience understands and absorbs them faster. Time is saved. Better decisions are reached more quickly.
Maybe you believe that clarity strips away mystique, and mystique helps you win your client pitch. That is, you believe if something reads as complex and difficult to grasp, the reader will be impressed with your intelligence. Perhaps, but people increasingly realise that clear layout shows clear thinking, and clear thinking impresses. Also, almost every decision maker has a boss to answer to and needs to be able to explain to that boss why they made the choice the did.
Clear simple information makes it easy for the decision maker to grasp your key points and explain them to their boss on your behalf and in your favour. Your client pitches are more likely to succeed. Before CEOs think this could help their annual reports, it is unlikely to. Much of their layout is prescribed by accountants and structurally cannot be changed. As for format, investors expect a particular style to annual reports, regardless of its rights or wrongs.
People are allowed to continue showing information poorly because of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome – no-one wants to admit their confusion.
The two charts shown in the graph comparison below are both drawn from the same data.
The right graph shows the patterns clearly, the multiple column chart is indecipherable. When I showed these charts on one of my courses, one delegate commented: ‘I have never understood those multiple column charts and I have always thought it was because I was stupid. It isn’t When faced with something confusing or inaccessible, people should speak out and demand that those preparing reports and presentations stop wasting everyone’s time. Unfortunately, this won’t always happen because often people don’t realise they are being shown something inadequate. Take the London Tube map.
Before Harry Beck straightened it out in 1932, the Tube map was a literal representation of where the trains went and everyone thought it was fine. Beck’s new brilliant map highlighted just how average the earlier maps had been. And so it is with much business information – until something better comes along, management aren’t aware they are being short-changed with something distinctly average.
Those that prepare information have a responsibility too. To think twice before printing off that spreadsheet or doing those bullet points orcrafting that pie chart. And be harsh on yourself. Whenever you say ‘what this graph is meant to show…’, what it actually shows is your graph hasn’t worked.
Do something different next time. Don’t assume the Microsoft templates (wizards) will help – often, they hinder.
Conventional organisation charts couldn’t cope – they spread the group over eight separate pages, leaving readers struggling to get a sense of corporate perspective. By showing information differently – by ignoring the PowerPoint Wizard – all units and hierarchies could fit legibly on one A3 page and the team could see the wood for the trees. The glib cliché is ‘information is power’. Given how much information is poorly constructed and presented, I would rephrase this and say that ‘clarity is power’. Information without clarity is useless while information with clarity leads to power.
Don’t just strive for information, strive for clarity, because showing information badly costs lives while showing it well saves time and money.
Jon Moon is a freelance trainer giving courses on how
to show information clearly. He also does consultancy,
advising on the layout and structure of reports,
management accounts and key performance