If data is so important to pharmaceutical companies, why doesn’t this crucial information get
the star treatment it deserves?
If you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, why are Excel and PowerPoint so often used to present data to key population-health decision-makers? Would you show up to the same presentation, wearing T-shirt and worn-out sweatpants?
Data visualization design is still a misunderstood and misused tool by so many. But, what if I told you there was a way to increase the stickiness of your messaging sixfold?
(Quick aside just in case you’re wondering: What I mean by data visualization is using charts,
images, graphs, animations, plots, and other visual tools to make complex data captivating and
easy to understand.)
We’ve all seen—or, more accurately, been subjected to—the bad data storytelling that I’m talking about:
• A mislabeled graphic, a chart used incorrectly, or tiny images that prompt you to ask,
“What am I looking at?”
• Colors and fonts that fight for attention, white space that disappears, and charts and
graphs and words that seem stacked on top of each other.
• Copy and graphics so small or hard to read that you must use the camera on your phone
to enlarge a slide and see what’s on it.
As a creative, I could spend hours praising the virtues of data visualization. The beauty of
revealing data. The clarity in simplifying the complex. The power in providing understanding. But that’s not what this is about.
I remain mystified by why this industry isn’t better at visual storytelling. So, I asked my colleague, Dr. Kathleen Starr, to help me understand why this powerful tool isn’t more widely used. As a behavioral scientist, she’s devoted the last 30 years to understanding why people do what they do. How do habits, motivations, and social influences affect how we work?
Her insight led to an aha moment. An epiphany of sorts. The light bulb switching on.
Here’s what I realized through our conversation: Data visualization reveals as much about the
person or people behind the presentation as it does about the data in the presentation. You and your colleagues have spent years researching, analyzing, and preparing. You know the information inside and out. But how do you take all that collective knowledge and turn it into something that’s memorable and meaningful to an audience that’s hearing these kinds of presentations all the time?
Data visualization can optimize your story. But when it’s not done well, there are five ways the
presentation could fail to connect with the audience (beyond not looking good and the audience wondering how much time was spent preparing it):
1) Cognitive overload: You’ve spent countless hours with the data, poring over it,
understanding it. Your audience wants to gain that knowledge in 20 minutes or less. Yet, the default is to overpack a presentation. Fill it with anything and everything ever learned—or with a hint of relevancy. “Do we want to appear like we know it all?” asks Starr. “Or do we want to make it easier for the audience to absorb and retain information?”
2) Limited attention span: The average person’s mind wanders nearly half the time,
especially when trying to comprehend complex information. “We all love to watch a good
story,” says Starr. “Visuals capture our attention. Then when one insight is connected to
another, we can’t help but lean in. Our interest grows because we want to know what’s next.”
3) Loss of meaning: If the audience is paying attention, then they’re trying to make sense of the information. Using visuals, patterns, trends, and other graphics can bring order and understanding. “Information alone is not meaning,” says Starr. “Meaning is, ‘How do I think about this and how does it relate to what I know?’ So, if you don’t help the audience see the data, you’re leaving a lot to risk. They will make up their own interpretation—and it may not be what you want.”
4) Lack of context: When it’s most effective, data visualization provides relevance all in one (or two) graphics. The audience will see the implications far faster than they will hear them. “We are biased in how we digest data,” says Starr. “Our brains seek to find patterns, to make connections, understand implications. Visuals help guide those minds. It’s like giving them a head start.”
5) Inattentional blindness: One of the best things about data visualization is the endless ways to help the audience see the data differently. We’re not limited to the basic three graphs (pie, bar, and line) that lose their impact with overuse. In fact, I can show you 100 different ways to visualize just six data points. The goal is to make it new, so everything doesn’t blend into sameness. “Novelty matters,” says Starr. “It shows what’s salient. Our brains perk up. We won’t be tarnished by comparisons with other charts that looked the same but may have completely different points.”
Beyond getting a degree in design or storytelling, how can you use data visualization to improve your next presentation? A few suggestions:
• Draw your story. Don’t write it. Don’t put it in PowerPoint. Sketch it out. Scribble it. Make
it visual. Then go from there.
• Cut, cut, cut. The average human mind can only absorb so much information in a short
period of time. What’s essential?
• Remember, visualizing information doesn’t mean you’re hiding anything or minimizing its
importance. In fact, you’re elevating it in the minds of your audience.
By itself, data is dormant. Its insight is inert. But if data visualization is used, it can be the first—
and perhaps most—powerful tool to tell your brand story. Before any campaign is launched or
omnichannel strategy is executed. Before reps are unleashed. Before patients can share their
stories. Before all that, show off your data.
Wayne Fassett is the Group Creative Director at Spherico, the Market Access division of GSW. This article is less than 1000 words so it wouldn’t fit in a picture.