Here’s the deal: People primarily look at pictures. That’s why we visualize data – to get people to look at it.

But if we waste the short amount of attention people are willing to extend to us by showing them visuals that don’t convey a point, we quickly teach them to ignore our pictures. We abuse the power of the visual and our audiences are more likely to miss the visuals that do carry a message because we’ve told them our visuals aren’t important (or are! – it’s a guess!).

So only graph the things that are important.

It took me a long time to learn this lesson. I spent a lot of my upbringing, like many of you, pouring over survey data and studiously graphing the responses to each question (just like SurveyMonkey will do for you). I was making pie charts by the truckload. Because we were very good survey methodologists, we would have been sure to ask our demographic questions upfront, at the start of the survey.

And our reporting habit back then, like many of you, was to report the data in the same general order that we asked the questions on the survey. 

All of this meant that we had pages and pages of pie charts for each of those demographic questions at the front of the report. But they usually carried no real point. We were just showing demographics. Which means people spent their precious attention span looking at meaningless pie charts, initially investigating a little to see if there was something important in the data visualization, but quickly learning our visuals meant nothing. Then by the time we got to the good stuff, if our readers will still even with us, they were visually exhausted.

So let’s reserve that power and only apply it to the things that matter. Like our findings. Like our action items.

It’s a win for us because we save time not making graphs that don’t matter. And it’s a win for the audience who wants to see what we think is important.