Recently, I sat in on a client meeting where an engineering consultant was presenting.
He showed up with a series of graphs that might have meant something to the experts in the room, but not to the client or other managers who were the main audience. The presentation, and the graphics in particular, simply weren’t intuitive or clear.
A lot of time was wasted as the engineer had to to clarify and explain what the different graphs meant, and what the subtle but not obvious differences were on different graphs that presumably showed the same information in different ways, or in fact, what the outcome or point was to the graphs.
Quite simply, they were confusing.
While there may have been a rational to the graphs and in fact, the organization of the presentation, it was far from clear, took too long to explain, and still left most people, myself included, a little uncertain about what the graphs were really saying.
This is a classic problem for people who are experts in their field.
When you know your material like the back of your hand, you are less likely to be able to explain it or present it in a way that others will understand it. This is because you have lots of knowledge and experience in your head and not enough of it finds its way into your graphics because you can’t differentiate what a non-expert needs to know to understand it.
That doesn’t mean you can’t create graphs and graphics that will be meaningful to non-experts, it simply means you have to work harder at it.
Use this process
- Decide what your objective is for your graph or graphic – what’s the message?
- Establish the background you need to provide for a lay-person to understand it. In other words, what is the story?
- List the elements needed in your presentation or graph to meet your message and tell the story.
- Create your graphic (and any necessary introductions) with the above in mind.
- Share your graphic with a non-expert and ask them whether it’s clear.
- Revise your graphic until it’s clear. Repeat step #5
As an expert in what you do, you have to recognize that your communications to others, whether they are managers or even technical experts in different fields, has to fit their own background, knowledge and experience.
You look good and gain respect for your knowledge not when you confuse, but when you clarify issues and get others to understand your point with clear, effective graphics that tell a story that your audience can understand