How to Present Data to People Who Are Scared of Numbers

by   |   November 9, 2015 5:30 am   |   1 Comments

Bernard Marr

Bernard Marr

Do you suffer from arithmophobia? As you might be able to guess, it’s an irrational fear of numbers.

I often get the feeling that some people at work love numbers: They love spreadsheets, metrics, and management ratios. But there is another (often considerably larger) group of people that doesn’t like numbers. These people don’t like working with them, don’t like discussing them and, in some cases, actually suffer from a phobia related to dealing with them.

Interestingly, this anxiety doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s ability to do math. It’s about having to deal with numbers in public. Sometimes even calculating the gratuity or splitting a restaurant bill can be enough to send people with math anxiety into a panic. Even people with higher-level degrees in mathematics can be numbers phobic when it comes to calculating sums – or even remembering a pin number or building code – in public.

And the problem is more common than you might think. One study found that six out of 10 university students suffered from diagnosable math anxiety.

And while you are not likely to face an algebra pop quiz once you have left school, a phobia related to numbers persists and can be a major problem in the workplace if management information is circulated in spreadsheets full of numbers.

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A phobia related to numbers is an extreme circumstance, of course. But you are likely to encounter in the work environment a good number of people who simply don’t like working with numbers, don’t absorb information presented in numeric form particularly well, or simply learn better another way.

What do you do, then, if you have to present data compiled in spreadsheets to an audience that doesn’t like, or even fears, working with numbers?

Become better at visualizations.

We need to do a better job of translating numbers into headlines, narratives, and images that better speak to people who don’t like numbers and/or don’t want to analyze numbers.

To do that, we need to become better at constructing visual representations of those numbers. The goal of any analytics is not to be the person with the most data, but to be the person whose data is understood.

Different people process data in different ways, regardless of whether numbers flummox them or not. Different visualization methods can help with this, but so does considering your audience and your subject.

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Some subjects naturally lend themselves better to tables, or graphs, or even infographics. Some audiences will fall asleep the first time they see a table in a presentation, but might wake up and pay attention if a graph were animated to show change over time.

No matter what your subject or who your audience is, getting feedback is essential. At its heart, data is a story, and you have to find the best way to tell it.

5 Ways to Improve your Visualizations

There are some tools and strategies that can help you create better visualizations and help everyone in your audience – arithmophobes or not – understand the data.

  1. Use benchmarks.  Instead of just laying out the numbers, consider including a benchmark, like percent change, so that people can easily see the difference between two large numbers.
  2. Use color. Color can pass along a message more easily than numbers in some cases. For example, if you use red for a negative percent change and green for a positive percent change, viewers will be able to quickly and easily see the difference.
  3. Use pictures or metaphors. Simple graphics like smiling or frowning faces, pluses and minuses, check marks, or even weather images (sunny, cloudy, stormy) can convey positive and negative change and help the audience relate to the numbers.
  4. Use motion or animation. If you are working in a format (like a digital presentation) that allows animation, it can be a wonderful tool for demonstrating change over time. Don’t get caught up in animation just because it looks cool, though; make sure you are using it appropriately to convey a message.
  5. Use words and word clouds. If you can easily explain the meaning of a set of numbers in words, do so. You never know how your audience will best receive information. Word clouds are also a wonderful way of visualizing certain kinds of data.

A word about infographics: Infographics are usually a combination of many types of data visualization in a cohesive whole. And although infographics are certainly the trendiest way to visualize data, they may not always be the best way. An infographic that beautifully and interestingly conveys complex data would be excellent for an important presentation, year-end report, or website. But if you are just sending along monthly numbers, you probably don’t have time for this kind of complicated graphic design.

Do you deal with number or maths anxiety at work?  Or are you the person who has to make numbers friendly for the team? What visualisation strategies work best for you? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

Bernard Marr is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, strategic performance consultant, and analytics, KPI, and big data guru. He helps companies to better manage, measure, report, and analyze performance. His leading-edge work with major companies, organizations, and governments across the globe makes him an acclaimed and award-winning keynote speaker, researcher, consultant, and teacher.

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One Comment

  1. Anne Goligher
    Posted November 19, 2015 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. This is so applicable to me.

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