Paint by Numbers. Harness the Power of Data Visualization.

The easiest way to tell an information-dense story may be graphically. And you don't have to be Leonardo da Vinci to create an effective chart or infographic.

learn more about Asha Saxena

By Asha Saxena

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The spreadsheet is an object of obsession for data analysts and quantitative thinkers. But for business leaders, sorting through countless rows and columns of raw data isn't ideal because their time is precious.

When you're given unprocessed information, it's hard to understand what the numbers mean -- much less how you can act on them. What's more, when a business leader is regularly bombarded by tons of coarse figures, this can hamper day-to-day productivity and that might means the data is working against him or her.

Data is crucial to your business's success since it can drive some of your most important decisions. But to get anything out of it, the data has to tell a story. And that's where data visualization comes in. The easiest way to tell a data story may be with visuals (an infographic, a chart or a graph) and this can be very effective.

Such visualizations of data can tell you about trends, patterns and problems at a glance, and you can even use colors to tell the story of your business in seconds. The key is to know how to put all these elements together.

You don't have to be Leonardo da Vinci to effectively tell a visual data story. Simply use the tools already at your disposal and you can be free of rows and columns -- for a little while, at least.

By turning your raw data into a visual story, you can empower your team to make quick decisions and create more time to use the data, develop solutions and grow your business. You don't have to go back to school to become a visual storyteller. Just follow these six steps:

Related: The World of Big Data Is Now Open to Small Companies

1. Focus on data quality.

Just because you're using pictures to tell your data's story doesn't mean you can skimp on the information. You need to have your data sources secure and "cleansed." Filter out all irrelevant data so it's not distracting you from the main point.

Plus you should develop a process to collect data and provide easy access to it so that creating a visual narrative is a natural next step.

2. Determine the audience.

Before you start crafting a visual narrative for your data, understand the intended viewers and how they interpret visuals.

For your story to be effective, design it keeping in mind your audience, whether it's composed of investors, employees or customers.

3. Ban all bias.

This sounds simple, but it's amazing how easy it is to interpret data based on presumptions rather than the patterns uncovered.

Try to approach your data narrative without preconceived notions. When you let the data lead you (rather than the other way around), you'll get more from it.

4. Choose tools wisely.

Select tools that help you but don't overwhelm you. Don't try to get fancy with a huge arsenal of software. You can start by creating very basic visual representations with Microsoft Excel.

Then carefully employ other software, for example, to make easy-to-use charts via Tableau, high-impact visual presentations through or dashboards and desktops using Qlik.

Related: The Step-By-Step Guide on Creating Infographics

5. Understand the visual elements.

When you're telling a data story visually, shapes, patterns and colors become your words. But use them appropriately so that your story is clear and concise.

Pay attention to the colors selected. For example, some people are colorblind and won't be able to detect certain tones, so use an accessible palette from a resource like ColorBrewer.

6. Let the viewer make the conclusion.

Often, the best stories are unresolved. You don't have to shape your data into a pie chart and find all the answers. Sometimes, just one lead or suggestion from a visual story can prompt the viewers to arrive at an educated next conclusion.

When data storytelling is done well, it engages the intended audience and allows for quick, clear communication. It can guide your business in the right direction and help many parties make informed decisions.

Related: The 6 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Creating Infographics

Asha Saxena

President and CEO of Aculyst Inc

Asha Saxena is Columbia University Professor and founder of Aculyst Inc. a healthcare big data solutions and advanced analytics services firm


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