Big Ideas for Small Business

Are You Leaving Your Audience Cueless?

dv camcorder and light

Use visual cues to keep your audiences from having to guess about the meaning of your graphs.

Imagine you are sitting at home at night your favorite chair. The lights are down and you are watching a movie on your television. You have the sound turned down and you are watching the action carefully.

You’re watching a woman moving slowly towards the door. She stops she reaches the door. She reaches her hand out slowly and cautiously towards the knob. She wraps her hand around the knob. And slowly. Carefully. Turns the knob.

Even without the sound, you know something is going to happen. There is something scary on the other side of the door. How do you know? The cautious motion towards the door. The camera focused on the door. As you get closer zooming in on the knob. Why? Because the director is giving you visual cues.

Because The Director Is Giving You Visual Cues

Great movie directors don’t make audiences guess what they are seeing. Instead they provide the audience with visual cues. The cues are not unique, they have been used in almost every mystery and horror film you have ever seen. They are familiar to you. They fill you in to what is about to happen. Because you have seen the cues hundreds of times before, you know what is happening. In fact you know what is about to happen without dialogue or sound. Wouldn’t it be great if you could use cues with your graphs.

But wait a minute. My graphs don’t move. How can I provide visual cues and something that is a snapshot not a motion picture?

Visual Cues Are Not Just For Movies

Visual cues are everywhere. If you think about it, there are visual cues everywhere you look. When you look at a map, you know that North is up. In a parking garage, the levels are color coded. The doors to the restrooms have words and pictures to help you determine which is the lady’s and which the men’s room.

Everyone is familiar with visual cues. There are three kinds of visual cue you can use to make your graphs more meaningful. The three kinds of visual cues are:

  1. Zero
  2. Targets
  3. Events

1. Zero

Why would you want to cue your audience about zero?

Zero is a baseline in most graphs. This scale on the vertical axis or Y axis starts at zero most of the time. But, sometimes the Y axis starts above zero. When a graph without a zero baseline is in the middle of a series of graphs that have a zero baseline, it is easy for the audience to be confused. Let me show you what I mean.

Exhibit 1 shows two graphs of the same numbers. The graph on the left, shows a zero baseline. The graph on the right to baseline that is greater than zero. The nonzero baseline graph changes the apparent volatility of the numbers. This is because the range of the Y axis is reduced when the baseline is above zero. You want to prevent your audience from getting the wrong information from your graphs.

Cue Exhibit A

Exhibit 1 – Here are two graphs of the same numbers. The only difference is the one on the left includes zero in the Y axis range.

The zero baseline is solution. You need to highlight the zero baseline. Look at Exhibit 2 below. On the left is a chart where the range of the Y axis includes zero. The cue is to make the zero line solid red and thick enough to be easily visible. On the right is a graph with a Y axis that doesn’t include zero. The cue is to make the line at the bottom of the range a dashed red line. Simply change how the zero line looks on your graphs to make your numbers more clear and useful to everyone in your audience.

Cue Exhibit Template

Exhibit 2 – Highlight the baseline of the Y axis to cue your audience into the range used in your graphs.

2. Targets

Targets are values that your organization wants to reach. Annual sales of $5 million. Increase new customers 25% over the previous year. Reduce sales costs to 10% of sales. Your audience may be very familiar with the target for a particular KPI (key performance indicator). But a chart that just shows the performance of the KPI may not show whether you are on or off target. This is especially true, when the values on the Y axis don’t include your target value.

It’s very easy to solve this problem. Just make the target specific on the graph. Add a line to the graph and label it target. The line doesn’t have to be the full width of the graph. It should start at the current. And go out to the end of the graph. Let me show you.

Exhibit 3 shows two graphs. The graph on left is a graph of annualized sales. The graph on the right is the same graph, but it includes a green line showing the annual target. When you make the target explicit, you make it clear to everyone in the audience how well or poorly you are doing against the target.

Cue Exhibit C

Exhibit 3 – Your audience doesn’t remember every single performance target. Add the target to your graph to give your performance context.

3. Events

Events are changes that occur which cause a dramatic change on a graph of a KPI. A price increase in your raw materials. The doubling of your sales force due to a merger. Adding a new product. Adding a new channel to sell your products. These are not every day in events, but events that change the significant aspect of your business.

Significant events show up as sudden increases or decreases on graphs. In most presentations I’ve seen, these events are left to the presenter to point out and explain. But what if someone’s looking at your graphs without a presenter?

The solution is to mark the point in time for the event occurs on the graph. There are two easy to use alternatives. The first is to have a vertical arrow pointing up or down at the point on the line where the event occurs. The second is to add a vertical line at the same point. With either technique, the real key is to add text identifying the event. You can see this clearly in the example below.

Exhibit 4 has three graphs. The graph on the upper left is sales without any explanation of the significant change. The graph on the lower left has an arrow with explanation of the event. The graph on the lower right has a vertical line with a description of the event. You can easily see how the arrow and horizontal line annotations improve the information provided by the graphs.

Cue Exhibit D

Exhibit 4 – Don’t leave unexplained events in your graphs. Add an indicator and a description to explain significant changes.

Don’t Leave Your Audiences Cueless

Don’t make your audiences guess about the meanings of your graphs. Don’t give them the opportunity to misunderstand what they are seeing. Add the three visual cues starting with your next set of graphs.

Make the zero baseline or lack of the zero baseline clearly visible. Add your targets to graphs so the audience can accurately assess performance. And highlight and describe any events that cause significant change in your performance. These three changes to your graphs won’t win you an Oscar. But it will take the mystery out of your graphs, and improve the value of your presentations.

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