Telling A Story and Making It Plain (Using Data)

In the Hebrew scriptures, God told the prophet Habakkuk to “write the vision and make it plain” (Habakkuk 2:2). In the same sense, pastors are called to this work; and, I would argue, so are researchers.

Any individual who collects data and is also tasked with interpreting that data to others must develop the skill of “making it plain.” One of the best ways to do this is through visual representation–pictures in the form of charts, graphs, and other infographics that provide a way of seeing patterns and trends more starkly or clearly than words can describe.

In the business world, data visualization is all the rage these days. I’m always seeing articles that offer helpful tips on making data more presentable, clearer, and generally more user-friendly for the average reader. I believe this is a positive trend; in order for the work of researchers and data analysts to be recognized and considered valuable in the shaping of policy, practice, and full-scale implementation, it never hurts to learn a few helpful tricks of the trade.

But if you think this skill is just for us research nerds, think again. I have seen countless church presentations in which statistics were presented in confusing, unclear formats, which ultimately hindered the receiving body from gaining the full picture of what the data were actually communicating. As a result, leaders were unable to make fully informed decisions.

From church finance meetings to visioning committees, there is one truth: The ways in which new information is presented is crucial to how the information is received and subsequently acted upon. Quality data visualization can greatly contribute to increased receptivity of new information and inform better decision making in the long run.

A recent blog post from the ever-helpful Harvard Business Review articulated a “Quick and Dirty on Data Visualization” to assist people in asking five simple and straightforward questions when preparing data for presentation. The questions were as follows:

1. Am I presenting or circulating my data?
2. Am I using the right kind of chart or table?
3. What message am I trying to convey?
4. Do my visuals accurately reflect the numbers?
5. Are my data memorable?

The article offers helpful guidelines in responding to each of these questions in order to improve data visualization. I highly recommend that you read the blog and try to implement some of the ideas it presents the next time you need to share important information with your congregation or other ministry groups.

I also can’t help but wonder, though, if some of these questions are helpful when we present any information to others, regardless of whether that information can be placed into a chart or table. Am I presenting or circulating the information? Am I using the right kind of medium to present this information? What message am I trying to convey? Do my words/symbols reflect reality? Is my information memorable? Good questions to ask when I’m writing a sermon too.

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