Why Some People Don’t Listen to Statisticians

Visual Revelations

Imagine, for a moment, a meeting in which you, a statistician, are meeting with a manufacturing manager and a marketing manager. The three of you are reviewing quality data, looking for a way to reverse a precipitous decline in customer satisfaction.

Now, ask yourself: Who in the room is likely to be best able to see patterns in the data?

False modesty aside, the most likely answer is you. If statisticians are so smart, though, why do so many of those meetings end with the statistician walking back to their office asking, “Why don’t those people ever listen?”

This article is an attempt to answer that question. It provides an explanation that says the cause rests with the statisticians. And, for those who are interested in solutions, the article goes on to offer a prescription for statisticians to use to change the odds in their favor.

Techniques Winners Use

Many statisticians have excellent communication skills. These are the people who seem able to get their peers, their managers, and managers in other departments to understand their ideas and to act on them. The remainder of this column…illuminates some of the techniques these winners use.

In this [column], I will focus on how to use visuals to get others to listen to you.

The Right Chart

The following prescription will help you make sure you are using the right charts.

1. Never show a visual that is hard to read; it implies a lack of respect for the audience. If they do not think you respect them, they won’t trust you.
• No more than seven lines of text and six words per line in a word chart.
• No long footnotes at the bottom of charts.
• No complex diagrams with tiny letters.

2. Use one visual to illustrate each key idea.
• Use titles that relate to the point you are making. This will ensure that the audience focuses where you want them. For example, instead of using “Yield of Water Machine 12H, by Time of Day” as the title, you may use “Yield Drops in Late Afternoon on Machine 12H.”
• If you use a graph, choose a type that is familiar to the audience or take the time to tell the audience how to read it…
• Test your graphs before your presentation to be certain they make exactly the point you want them to make. Show them to a third party, and ask what point they make.
• If the graph has a great deal of data in it, highlight the area on which you want the audience to focus.
• A photograph or model is usually a better illustration than a statistical chart.

3. Do not waste the time of the audience.
• Exclude extraneous material.

A Two-to-One Advantage

Effective visuals can make or break a presentation. Research at the Applied Research Center at Wharton and the Graduate School of Management at the University of Minnesota provided powerful data affirming that speakers who use visuals are far more likely to win than speakers who do not use visuals, even when the quantity and quality of data are constant. At Wharton, the quality of information presented said that the speaker with visuals was twice as likely to win as the speaker without visuals. At Minnesota, the data showed that speakers with visuals caused audiences to spend 40% more money than speakers who did not use visuals.

Even more important than the data on winning and losing supplied by these studies were their findings about how visuals work. In contrast to the commonly held opinion that the visual itself persuades the audience, these studies found that the visuals do not directly affect decisions. Instead, visuals alter the audience’s perception of the speaker, and the changed perception causes the audience to accept the position taken by the speaker.

When a speaker uses visuals, according to these studies, the audience perceives that speaker as (1) more professional, (2) more persuasive, (3) better prepared, (4) more credible, and (5) more interesting when the same speaker did not use visuals. In a word, the visuals cause the audience to build trust in the speaker. Trust is the mother’s milk of authority.

Be careful how you interpret these data. A speaker with more statistical charts will not necessarily win over a speaker with fewer charts.

More Visuals or the Right Visuals?

In a meeting in Washington, two government division directors were each asked to give a short presentation to the assistant secretary and his staff. Each wanted to establish that [their] division, and not that of the other director, should be given the authority to spend $22.5 million in discretionary funds for demonstration projects.

The first director (No. 1) was the logical choice. Her division had been specifically mentioned in legislation authorizing the expenditures. No. 2, on the other hand, had moved more quickly and had planned a comprehensive program to spend the money. No. 1 countered with a program of her own. The meeting was scheduled to stop the rivalry and choose one or the other.

Both had prepared reports describing their plans. No. 1 had a 4-inch-thick document filled with charts and tables, which she brought to the meeting. No. 2 used a different approach. He had converted his 50-page document into four pages of a flip chart.

No. 2 was asked to speak first. He presented and explained each chart. Chart One showed Congress’s objective. The second showed how each of the programs he proposed contributed to meeting each objective. The third was a Gantt chart scheduling when the programs would be run. The fourth was a U.S. map showing in which states the money would be spent. As the audience leaned forward to understand the charts, they became involved in his proposal.

Then it was No. 1’s turn. She pulled the sheaf of charts and tables in front of her and said, “In this report, we provide a complete analysis of the relevant data on which we have designed our programs. I will take you through the key points.” The audience shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, anticipating a lengthy discourse.

When she had finished, the assistant secretary thanked them both and told them he had decided to delegate authority to spend the money to No. 2.

Although No. 1 had produced more charts, No. 2 was the victor. Brevity and quality will usually overcome quantity. In other words, it’s not how many charts you make that counts; it’s whether you make the right chart.

Despite their importance, visuals are only one part of the package that your audiences and managers see when you stand before them.

A few closing words for the skeptics among you, both those who say “It’s all Madison Avenue hype” and those who feel “it would be great, but I’ll never be able to pull it off.”

As a person with valuable knowledge, you have something your audience wants. They want your data and your ideas, because those ideas, well supported, will help them to succeed. If you use effective communication techniques, you will allow them to receive and adopt your ideas with less struggle.

I have discovered that people are not “born communicators.” They work at it; the harder they work, the better they are. Technical professionals are fully capable of becoming great presenters. It is my hope that this column will ease the burden and make the task of improving your technical communication skills fun as well as rewarding.

About the Author

Alan Paller edited the Visual Revelations column from 1988 until 1990, and was the author of Choosing the right chart: A comprehensive guide for computer graphics users (1981). He became the director of ISSCo, a graphics software firm, which went public and merged with CA Technologies. In 1988, he founded the SANS Institute, a professional cybersecurity training organization. At the time of his death in 2021, he was president emeritus of the SANS Technology Institute, a cybersecurity college and graduate school, and president of the National Cyber Scholarship Foundation.

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