Dr. James M. Smith gives lectures at facilities/colleges and conferences across the country showing healthcare staff how to analyze and present data more effectively. He shows how data presented as data are meaningless, but data presented as information are priceless.
In this conversation, James discusses his new book, Meaningful Graphs.
Geetesh: James, tell us more about what motivated you to author your Meaningful Graphs book?
James: Although poorly drawn graphs ("charts" in Excel) appear everywhere, my own personal motivation came from my experience in healthcare settings. I had often seen remarkable improvement projects conducted by physicians, nurses, QI staff, managers, and others. The clinical or management issues they addressed were significant and the methods they used were generally good, given that the projects were conducted in an applied setting and not in the isolation of a controlled study. What was often lacking was a clear graphic presentation of the results: the wrong type of chart was selected for the data, mental gymnastics were required to interpret the chart, axes were inappropriately truncated, color was used incorrectly, or the chart was cluttered with chartjunk, to name just a few.
I truly felt badly for those who had conducted the study; in poster sessions they often spent more time explaining how their graphs were constructed than on the significance of the results. In some cases, the graph was ineffective because they had failed to identify the story in their data -- that's a fatal flaw at the outset of any graph design process. In other cases, the issue was that they didn't know the principles of good graph design and/or how to implement these in Excel. In these cases, the graphs could have been dramatically improved if only those creating them knew a little more about general and chart-specific principles of graph design and a little more about the techniques of Excel. This isn't rocket science. But if you don’t know it, you'll have major problems.
Geetesh: Although your book mentions Excel within the title, almost everything applies to PowerPoint as well since Excel is the charting engine for PowerPoint -- also your book is simple to understand and gets great results -- just what PowerPoint users need! Can you share some thoughts?
James: The audience for my book includes many people who have only an occasional need for a chart. For them, creating the chart in PowerPoint is ideal. Once you select a chart type/variation from the menu, a split screen appears with the chart on one side and sample data on the other. All they have to do is replace the sample data with their own data, expanding or contracting the data field as necessary. There's no worrying about how to set up and manipulate an Excel spreadsheet. Creating charts in PowerPoint is easy and intuitive.
One of the problems, of course, is that PowerPoint (Excel) has an abundance of chart types and variations from which to choose (73 in all). It's clear that I like charts -- charts are a good thing -- but this is too much of a good thing. I think some people are dazzled by the possibilities and try to pick some chart type that others have not seen in order to make their presentation unique. In most instances, the uniqueness comes at a price: information confusion or loss.
3-D charts are a good example. Judging from how many I see, people really like these. Yet, nearly all design experts agree that they are not good at communicating information. Of the 73 chart types/variations available in PowerPoint (Excel), 37 are 3-D charts, either labelled as such by Microsoft or functionally so without the label (cylinder, cone, and pyramid versions of column and bar charts). Other graph types also present problems including the ubiquitous pie chart. Frankly, if you want to convey information quickly and easily using a chart, there's more to dislike about the options available in PowerPoint (Excel) than to like -- at least for my audiences.
Finally, there's the issue of how to convey complex information with a complex chart without information overload for the audience. Here's where PowerPoint really shines because of its ability to animate charts. You can step your audience through a complex chart and they will not be overwhelmed by it. To do this, I sometimes use the PowerPoint chart animation feature. However, more often than not I use slide transitions to animate charts (as well as other material). When I describe how to do this in my book, I refer to it as the "clunky way." Its real strength is that it draws on a PowerPoint feature that most users already know and once I show my audiences how to do it, they don't forget it. As you say, simple to understand and gets results.
I wrote Meaningful Graphs for those in applied settings (healthcare and other) who don't have the time or interest to read comprehensive books on graph design and Excel software. It provides one-stop shopping for the principles of good graph design and the software techniques of Excel as they relate to charts -- all the essential information needed to make charts more informative and more effective in problem-solving.
April 2003 | May 2003 | December 2003 | January 2004 | February 2004 | March 2004 | April 2004 | May 2004 | June 2004 | July 2004 | August 2004 | September 2004 | October 2004 | November 2004 | December 2004 | January 2005 | February 2005 | March 2005 | April 2005 | May 2005 | June 2005 | July 2005 | August 2005 | September 2005 | October 2005 | November 2005 | December 2005 | January 2006 | February 2006 | March 2006 | April 2006 | May 2006 | June 2006 | July 2006 | August 2006 | September 2006 | October 2006 | November 2006 | December 2006 | January 2007 | February 2007 | March 2007 | April 2007 | May 2007 | June 2007 | July 2007 | August 2007 | September 2007 | October 2007 | November 2007 | December 2007 | January 2008 | February 2008 | March 2008 | April 2008 | May 2008 | June 2008 | July 2008 | August 2008 | September 2008 | October 2008 | November 2008 | December 2008 | January 2009 | February 2009 | March 2009 | April 2009 | May 2009 | June 2009 | July 2009 | August 2009 | September 2009 | October 2009 | November 2009 | December 2009 | January 2010 | February 2010 | March 2010 | April 2010 | May 2010 | June 2010 | July 2010 | August 2010 | September 2010 | October 2010 | November 2010 | December 2010 | January 2011 | February 2011 | March 2011 | April 2011 | May 2011 | June 2011 | July 2011 | August 2011 | September 2011 | October 2011 | November 2011 | December 2011 | January 2012 | February 2012 | March 2012 | April 2012 | May 2012 | June 2012 | July 2012 | August 2012 | September 2012 | October 2012 | November 2012 | December 2012 | January 2013 | February 2013 | March 2013 | April 2013 | May 2013 | June 2013 | July 2013 | August 2013 | September 2013 | October 2013 | November 2013 | December 2013 | January 2014 | February 2014 | March 2014 | April 2014 | May 2014 | June 2014 | July 2014 | August 2014 | September 2014 | October 2014 | November 2014 | December 2014 | January 2015 | February 2015 | March 2015 | April 2015 | May 2015 | June 2015 | July 2015 | August 2015 | September 2015 | October 2015 | November 2015 | December 2015 | January 2016 | February 2016 | March 2016 | April 2016 | May 2016 | June 2016 | July 2016 | August 2016 | September 2016 | October 2016 |
Microsoft and the Office logo are trademarks or registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.