How the right graphics take presentations to a new level

Image: David McCandless@informationisbeautiful.net

Presentations, whether to board members, colleagues, stakeholders or investors, are now a crucial skill, and it is no longer enough to illustrate your message with static PowerPoint lists of dot points. This is where graphics come in.

As information grows more complex there is an ever-greater need to communicate it clearly and effectively.

“We are all users of elegantly designed websites and smartphones now,” says David McCandless, a leading graphic artist and author of several books on visual communication. “We have come to expect a certain level of design quality in the visual material we consume. Presentations are no exception.

“It is something you have to start thinking about as soon as you know you have to give a presentation. That process can help you clarify your own thinking and understand what the really important and relevant material is.”

McCandless notes that there are plenty of online tools available. In the planning of the graphics to support a presentation, unusual or interesting chart types, colours, typography and composition can do much to increase design quality and beauty. Recent trends also include interactivity and animation to enhance storytelling and engagement.

Graphics should fit the content

McCandless stresses that an important issue to focus on is fitting the graphics to the content. In the presentation of financial information, bar, pie and line charts should not be overlooked.

“These are classics and there are some great new styles that work to provide a whole new type of depth,” he says. 

Professional Development: David McCandless talks about the beauty of data visualisation at select locations of CPA Congress 2018. Learn more.

“Tessellating tree maps for showing the composition of a budget, for example, allows you to give an overview as well as a capacity to drill down into detail.”

As a means of displaying inflows and outflows of funds, McCandless recommends using Sankey diagrams. These are graphic illustrations of flows, where the flows are illustrated as arrows. The width of the arrows is proportional to the size of the represented flow. This can communicate a good deal of information at a glance.

Responding to complexity

McCandless recognises that Big Data and business analytics present new challenges in communicating information.

“I always think of a graphic as equivalent to an abstract, the paragraph summary that distils the key findings,” he says. 

“So I’m always looking to condense, distil, optimise, simplify and otherwise ‘purify’ the mass of raw data into something consumable and digestible.” Think of it as a concentrated pill of information.

“Interactivity has a role to play in the sharing of large datasets and findings, where users can filter, sort and even ‘swim’ through the data to make their own discoveries.”

McCandless suggests storytelling as another response to complexity.

Graphics can be used to weave a narrative to display only the important and relevant insights of a large dataset or take the audience on a tour through the numbers, he says.

“There are plenty of examples to draw on and lots of useful tools,” he notes. “So look around, see what is happening, and think about how you can use it. With some thought and planning you can take your presentations to a whole new level.”

McCandless distils the essential elements that make a successful graphic or presentation into four points:

  • Information and data – clear, solid and relevant
  • Concept/question – an underlying question or hypothesis that the presentation addresses and is supported by the graphics
  • Goal/function – a clear understanding of the basic purpose and desired outcome
  • Visual Form – how the visuals relate to the spoken or written words

Useful websites

The Billion Dollar-o-Gram

From data to knowledge: the power of elegant sankey diagrams

KANTAR: information is beautiful awards - winners


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