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Communicating with FINESSE: This Is How to Make Your Graphics More Powerful, Understandable

Spelling of Illustrate, the second bone of Communicating with FINESSE
Illustrations include Essential Graphics, Graphics to Use with Caution, and the Captions & Colors of Those Visuals

“I have a question,” stated the Chief Financial Officer. “The second data point from the right end of the line the drastically different than the others. How do you know that the line should be straight? Should not the cost line be curved between the last two data points?"

“Well, when we look at the correlation of the best-fit line with and without the point you reference, we obtain a nearly ideal fit when we treat the second point from the end as an anomaly,” stated the highly educated, high-brow consultant was discussing the agenda item before mine. His second sentence was equally long as he started launching into details about correlation and how the computer program cyphered through all of the data.

I knew it would be a while before it was my turn when he was still answering questions that no one had asked nearly ten minutes later.

A short answer to the CFO’s question would have been good. Even better, why not just show a table of values rather than a scatter plot with a best-fit line that invites more questions and explanations. The approval of the forecasted budget was the topic of the decision that day, not how the smart technical experts had created information from the data.

“I” Stands for Illustrations

FINESSE is my mnemonic for remembering the basics of effective communication. A mnemonic is a literary construction used to make important things more memorable. For example, FINESSE facilitates the memory of effective communication: Frame, Illustrate, Noise, Empathy, Structure, Synergy, and Ethics.

Illustrations include all of the visuals and graphics that we use to make our large data sets understandable to others. The operable quote is from Edward Tufte, “Graphical excellence is a matter of substance, of statistics, and of design.”

Essential Graphics

The visual should relate something relevant and simple to the decision at hand, or that is at least interesting to the audience. The rule is to use one of each essential graphic but not use two of the same type - at least do not use two of the same type without a lot of heated discussions.

  • Picture

  • Geospatial

  • Time Series Chart

  • Table

  • Tornado Diagrams

  • Guiding Graphic

Graphics to Use with Caution

Decision makers have limited time. Said another way, decision makers will always ask you to see more if they desire to understand in more depth than provided in three to five minutes. “Graphics to Use caution” are not necessarily bad for technical discussions and debates; however, they are seldom effective when communicating with decisions because they often take valuable time to explain. Use these four with caution:

  • Scatter Diagram

  • Matrix

  • Histogram

  • Pie Chart

Simplify Messages and Colors

Whether in a written report or presentation, every visual should have a single key message. State the message briefly and concisely. If two visuals of the same type make the same point, choose the best one.

Black, dark blue, and white are always effective. Black is psychologically associated with finality and can add emphasis when used with greyscale. Dark blue is associated with calmness, credibility, and a business-like approach. White is a great background and great as text on black or blue backgrounds.

Stay with greyscales and pastels to the extent possible and use bolder colors to draw the audience to the key point you are trying to make. Google Maps gets it right. Old-school paper maps and nautical charts do too.

Red, yellow, and orange are suitable for adding emphasis. As a rule, they should not be used as primary colors when communicating reliability, risk, and resiliency to decision makers. As primary colors, they have a high potential for creating distractions and creating noise that distracts from the primary message.

Communicating with FINESSE

Illustrations include all of the visuals and graphics that we use to make our large data sets understandable to others. A common mistake by technical professionals is to assume their audiences are incapable of understanding the data and information without illustrations. This is usually not the case.

The rule is to use one of each essential graphic but not use two of the same type - at least