If you’ve been in the field of marketing or advertising for any length of time, chances are you’ve delivered data in a report. Maybe you churn out reports like it’s your job (because it is your job) or you simply present data on occasion—either way, effectively communicating data is a vital skill for most people in the industry.
As we all know, presenting numbers is not as easy as it sounds. If you’re like me, report preparation comes far more naturally than presentation! Sure, anyone can throw a few data points and a chart onto a slide and talk at it, but communicating with numbers so that your message is truly compelling? Now, that’s an art entirely unto itself.
There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all methodology for effective data reporting. But there are some common themes and principles, and pitfalls to avoid, that can help you ensure your reports are well received. Here are my top five rules for effectively communicating data.
Rule #1: Use the fewest decimal places and digits possible.
Being concise is key no matter what we’re communicating, and data is no exception. The reader’s ability to comprehend a value exponentially decreases with the number of digits displayed. Let’s try it in practice.
Which of these is more memorable: 1.5M or 1,508,294? 55.24% or 55%?
What about if we look at sets of numbers, like these: 530K and 990K or 529,367 and 990,824?
It should be obvious that the more digits included in the number, the harder your brain has to work to read and digest the value compared to the rounded versions.
Of course, we don’t always have the luxury of rounding values. In most reports, we need to use exact values when representing exact data. That being said, this rule is often most important in the text that accompanies a report. Use it when communicating top-line ideas like in the summary, insights, or takeaways sections of a report.
Rule #2: Use the fewest metrics possible.
In addition to limiting the number of digits you present, also be extremely selective about which metrics you choose to include in a report.
For instance, in a single digital advertising report, do you need to show impressions, clicks, click-through rate, cost per click, and CPM? I doubt it. This rings especially true when some of the metrics can be derived from the others. For example, click-through rate is clicks divided by impressions. It’s highly unlikely that you need to show all three pieces of this equation; instead, choose the one or two that are most meaningful for the reader. Go ahead, I give you permission to make that choice on their behalf. It’s for the best.
The point is that more is not always better. It’s very easy to overwhelm a report recipient with too much data, so your job is to curate the data beforehand and ensure that everything in the report is there for a reason.
Rule #3: Visually highlight what’s important.
Data visualization has become an industry all its own in the past several years. There’s good reason for that—symbols and charts are far better at conveying data than poor old numbers alone will ever be. But aside from using charts and graphs to better communicate data, we can use the visualization principle to spruce up numbers as well.
Even after cutting down the amount of data (following rules 1 and 2), you’ll still likely have some data points that are more significant than others. Highlighting these priority metrics is a great way to guide your reader’s eyes right where you want them. You can do this using different colors, bold fonts, colorful outlines, shaded boxes—whatever you can find to make things visually pop! Providing the reader with those visual cues gives them a roadmap for navigating the report, which ultimately makes it much easier to comprehend.
Rule #4: Sort charts and tables by a meaningful metric, never alphabetically.
This rule isn’t violated too frequently, but every once in a while I’ll see a chart or table with data that is sorted alphabetically. Please don’t do this. Seriously. There are very few occasions where this would actually make sense.
In most cases, it’s far more meaningful to sort data using one of the metrics in your chart. For example, sort campaigns by amount spent, sort geographies by revenue generated, sort target audiences by response rate, sort ad versions by impressions served…you get the point. Select a metric that orders the data in a purposeful way, and forget that you ever learned the alphabet.
Rule #5: Make differences stand out.
Last but not least, make it a point to emphasize differences that are relevant. Oftentimes in reports, many of the numbers can be similar to one another, or similar to what they were last month, etc. In these cases, the most interesting parts of the report are the differences. Those differences may indicate recent changes in marketing strategy, current economic climate, a product launch, or any number of other events.
Therefore, it’s best to channel rule #3 again and use your visual cues to highlight those significant differences. You can then add callouts that speak directly to the reasons for the variances. Readers appreciate this type of candor and it allows you to answer questions before they arise.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of best practices for effectively communicating data. Let’s be honest: I don’t have the time to write that list, and you definitely don’t have the time to read it. But I hope this provides you with a few guidelines to remember as you’re preparing reports. Let’s all try to stick that landing just a little bit better.
Now in our 50th year of business, Vladimir Jones is Colorado’s original independent, integrated advertising agency, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. We believe in brilliant brands and love making the world love them as much as we do.