Friday, January 02, 2015

Painting with numbers

I discovered the website of Randall Bolten a few weeks ago; he wrote a book entitled 'Painting with numbers' and here I will present some of the promotional material for it ....

Bolten presents a book for all who communicate with numbers. "Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You"will help you to communicate financials and other numbers clearly, understandably, concisely, and – most of all – effectively.

Like any communication skill, how well you can present numbers has a huge effect on how well your audience understands you. When presenting numbers, you are sending signals to your audience about your intelligence, professionalism, and respect for your audience.

You should read Painting with Numbers if you:
  • Communicate with numbers as a central part of your job, as an accountant or other finance professional 
  • Present numbers as part of your function as a lawyer, investor, HR professional, fundraiser, etc. 
  • Work in a fiscal management, taxation, healthcare and other areas of public policy where presenting and understanding numbers are critical 
  • Are pursuing a degree in business, engineering or other career where communicating with numbers is critical 
  • Read, listen to, and make decisions based on numbers presented to you Communicate with numbers only occasionally, but when that skill is needed, the stakes are very high for you 
Many books have been written about writing and speaking, such as Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and Lynn Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves. But "Painting with Numbers" is the first book about communicating with numbers.

The other day I saw this graph in the newspaper

I sent the graph to Mr Bolten along with the following message: The enclosed graphic was displayed in an Israeli newspaper this morning which discusses how Israelis use the internet. What caught my eye was the fact that there is absolutely no relationship between the length of the histogram bars and the percentage which they are displaying. The bars from top to bottom read
  • Met partners on the internet – 32%
  • Members of family groups in WhatsApp – 70%
  • Visit a doctor after reading about their medical problem on internet – 56%
  • Watch tv series and films via the internet – 63%
  • Listen to music on the net – 80%
He replied: Many thanks for your interesting example! (And thanks for the translation – my Hebrew is ridiculously rusty, and impossible without the vowels.) 

I spent a few minutes myself trying to guess what might have gone wrong with the graph, and I could identify no errors or transpositions that might explain things. I even speculated that the 80%/70%/63%/56%/32% relationship might be explained by the space remaining to the right of the bars, since Hebrew reads right-to-left, but that didn’t work, either. 

The only explanation I could come up with was that the length of the bars was determined by the length of the captions – note that the type size is the same for all five captions, and the blank space on either side of the numbers seems to be about the same in each bar. In other words, this “graph” was not produced in Excel or any other graphing package – it was nothing more than artwork created to make it look like a graph. (This is an interesting variation on Deadly Sin #2, which you will find in the attached “The Deadly Sins of Quantation,” a one-page handout that is marketing collateral for my book, Painting with Numbers.) 

If you ever do find out how & why this graph was generated, please let me know.  It is one of the worst examples of numbers presentation I’ve ever seen, and I may want to write a post about it. 

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