For the third episode of “Everything Thought Leadership,” our video + podcast series, Bob interviewed Bill Shander, a thought leader on data visualization.
If you’ve visited The New York Times or Washington Post online, or the websites of top consulting firms, you’ve probably seen mesmerizing graphics that depict trends, facts and statistics. Many of them are interactive, and allow the visitor to insert information to see how the graphic changes.
Bill is an expert on how to create these graphics. He speaks at conferences and leads in-person workshops for clients and the public on data storytelling and visualization – why it’s essential in today’s world and how to really communicate effectively with varied audiences.
He loves listening to clients’ challenges, exploring their data and processes and helping them deliver compelling messages via interactive and static visual experiences. An animated and passionate teacher, Bill for the past eight years has taught a course on data visualization on Lynda.com and LinkedIn Learning.
In this fascinating discussion, Bill shares how he got into this field and why it’s essential. And to illustrate how to practice data visualization, he takes us through an exercise that creates a graphic based on the question, “Can someone over 50 become an Olympic athlete?”
Bob interviewed Bill on February 3, 2022.
Episode 3: Bill Shander
Listen to the Podcast
Using Data Visualization to Engage Your Audience:
A Conversation with Bill Shander
Bob: Bill, give us some background about how you were drawn to this world of data visualization and data depiction.
Bill: I’ve always been an information designer, and data viz is a part of that. When I was doing a lot of web design and development for my clients, I found I gravitated most to the parts of the projects involving what is called information architecture. For example, when you’re building a website, what should the navigation be? Which words do you use; what falls under each one of the main categories; what subcategories do you have? For most of my clients, that organizing information, put together in a way that was compelling and findable, was very important. Information design broadly includes other things. One example is airport signage: how do I find the bathroom in the airport? It occurred to me that I really like that idea of organizing information, translating information, and then making it compelling and visual, and understandable to audiences. So it was something I was doing all along, really even way back 30 years ago when I was doing video production. But it took me a while to figure out that this was a category of work that I could focus in on exclusively, and I do love data. Ironically, the one class I ever dropped in college was computer programming, and the one class I ever got a “C” in was statistics. For a lot of reasons, I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
New Tools with Infinite Possibilities
Bob: Most publications were still print 25 years ago. How do websites and online tools like Tableau change the game of how data can be depicted and visualized?
Bill: A slew of books have come out in the last 10-15 years. Of course there’s the Edward Tufte books from the 1980s, but people were even writing about this back in the 1920s and 1930s, well before these digital tools. I remember one book where it was all about preprint processes, cutting strips of paper and getting ready for the camera to go into print. Today’s digital tools, of course, make it much easier to actually execute on these ideas, and also much more flexible. Back in the day you created line charts, using protractors and other manual tools. Today you can work with pixels on the screen — endless combinations of shapes and geometries and other stuff. From a purely technical and tactical standpoint, of course, the tools enable a lot. But then you have the incredible dynamic capabilities of the computer, where I can animate things, make them interactive, and use millions of colors, not just black and white. Without computers you literally couldn’t do 98% of what we can do now, faster and more cheaply. And it’s been democratized; anybody can do it. You don’t need the publishing capabilities that were needed back in the day.
Bob: Today, with just a keystroke, the viewer can get more information that was not possible years ago in the print world. They can participate much more in in trying to understand the information that’s being presented to them. So how does that interactivity change the game in?
Bill: Back in the days of paper, overhead presentations and other media, you had limited space. You’d have a chart that showed what the author needed to or wanted to show – end of discussion. Theoretically you could just use what’s called small multiples, which in the data visualization world just means a bunch of tiny charts. Authors might show you the 50 variations of a visualization, and people did occasionally do that back in earlier days. But today, interactivity gives you the ability to filter and find the data story yourself. So rather than an editorialized experience, where you’re consuming what I decide you consume, you get to decide how to find yourself in the data. The New York Times does this and they are one of the best in the business. Years ago, they did one that showed the federal budget in the US, and how the dollars are spent, broken up into the segments such as security, military spending, etc. And the deal was, if you needed to cut the budget by 10%, how would you cut the budget by 10%? This is a very personalized activity, versus the New York Times editorial board saying what they think should be done.
Media Leads the Way
Bob: The viewers of this video and podcast series are people in thought leadership in large companies, small companies, nonprofits and elsewhere. They are less likely to be in media companies like the New York Times. However, you’ve written that most of the skill base in data visualization and interactive data depiction still exists in largely in the media companies, and not in these large B2B professional services firms.
Bill: Yes and no. The media companies — New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Pro Publica and others around the world – are doing the best data storytelling data visualization work on the planet, especially for public consumption. I know multiple professional services firms that have data visualization teams that are either client-facing and or for thought leadership, but they are definitely playing catch up to the media companies. Capital One has a big data visualization team, although I think that they’re mostly for internal-facing content. Others are doing the same thing: using visualization to understand their own data. Netflix has a big data visualization team. For public consumption, the media is doing the sexiest, most interesting, most compelling, really cool data visualization work, but these other companies are starting to catch up.
More B2B Firms Embrace Data Viz
Bob: Among professional services firms – consulting, law, IT services, architecture firms – is there a universal understanding that data visualization, especially the interactive part, is very important for their thought leadership content, and that they need to do it?
Bill: I think that they are starting to get it. Data storytelling, and data visualization are sort of hot topics right now, and people who create thought leadership content know how important it is to have really smart, data-driven, research-driven, compelling information as part of their marketing efforts. And it is widely known that human beings are visual creatures and visual learners; up to half of your brain is devoted to processing visual information. So if you are communicating complex information, you should be making a visual and you should be making it interactive when you can. This increases retention, and helps people remember and understand complex information.
Realizing the Potential
Bob: Is there some kind of path that your typical client takes here? Does their usage of data visualization evolve, where they start doing something and then want to try even more?
Bill: Back in the day, you would write a 12- or 26-page report and 98 percent of it would be a gray wall of text. Then the next step might be dropping in some charts and graphs in there. That’s a great step in the right direction, because visualized data will bubble up insights for your audience that they would literally otherwise miss. And it’s sort of a place for the eye to rest, a break from all the reading. As an important next step, rather than just cranking out some charts in Excel and just dropping them in the report, you actually apply some design best practices to these charts, some data visualization, You think through: Is a line chart the right choice, even for this particular data? What are we trying to do with this data?
And then eventually, people may start thinking about throwing in some animated visualizations when they market that report, involving more movement and dynamic elements. And then eventually, they start to think about doing more interactive experiences; that the interactive experience IS the report. They might set bar a little bit low at first: using one piece of data and making a little calculator or accessory tool that helps readers understand where they fall in this.
An interactive report doesn’t necessarily replace a PDF, but it’s easier to drive people to it because that’s where all the juice and excitement are. It’s also more shareable on social media.
When Interactive Becomes the Primary Draw
Bob: What does that “juice” include? Do more people click on this than download the PDF version of this research report? What motivates your clients to decide that the interactive part of this is actually the most important?
Bill: From what I’ve seen, the interactive experience definitely tends to get the most attention, excitement and interest, especially at the beginning. It’s hard to say whether the long tail of excitement and traction is higher, or lower, compared to a PDF. McKinsey has created an entire center that includes dozens of interactive experiences all about COVID and economic data related to COVID. It includes some PDF reports of specific bits of research, but the entire experience is this massive, beautifully designed, very rich, interactive set of visualizations. And that’s the magnet.
Bob: Our friend Jason Forrest is involved in that effort. McKinsey seems to be far ahead of the average professional service firm in in this area. What would be your advice to a midsized or large professional firm that that is kind of kicking the tires, and wants to know how they might get started and prove to the budget holders that this is an area worthy of investment?
Bill: Start with a pilot. A midsize to large firm might create five to 500 thought leadership pieces a year. For larger firms, some ideas clearly garner the most attention and are the most important. Start with these. Maybe you can build an interactive tool that is like an accessory to that report.
This also becomes a marketing focus. I remember one of my projects involving research about what makes a good CEO. We created a tool that allowed readers to figure out if they would make a good CEO for certain types of companies, by plugging in their own information. And that was a subcomponent of the larger research report.
I would recommend one of those firms take the most important thing they’ve done, carve off a bit of budget to do a pilot interactive thing, and use that as sort of a marketing attractor. And then obviously, ahead of time, set up those metrics that will allow you to judge it — not necessarily clicks, likes or shares, but something tangible that you can track to see whether it’s accomplishing what you want it to do, such as phone calls or new business.
A Scrollytelling Tale: The Over-50 Athlete
Bob: Could you walk us through an example of something that you really like, that you designed for on behalf of a client or behalf of yourself?
Bill: Yes. Conceptually, this actually falls into something that feels more like something a media company would do, because this is a data story about the Olympics. I found a data set that looks at all 270,000 athletes who have ever competed in the Olympics, literally from 1896 all the way up to present day. I turned 50 a few years ago and I do athletic things. So I asked myself this thesis question: Are your Olympic dreams over at 50?
I decided to find out whether my dreams for an Olympic medal are officially dead or just likely dead. And so I explored this data for quite a while. I decided to do the research, try to find the insights, and then bubble up the key insights. I created what’s called a “scrollytelling” experience, where as you scroll, things are revealed.
The experience starts off by pointing out that age is just a number. And that’s certainly true for some careers, like politics, science and acting. But is it true for athletes? And then as you continue, this is where the scrollytelling part comes in. As you scroll, and the story starts to reveal itself in words, you also get these visualizations.
Out of 41,000 Olympic medals awarded, 86%, are between the ages of 18 and 35. As you continue to scroll, a distribution diagram shows you that it’s very rare to compete and win a metal beyond 40, and especially beyond 50. As you scroll, the visual is sort of updating, and then that visual goes away.
The next segment of the experience explores how being “old-ish” is good generally, in the Olympics, because the average age of medal winners for a little over half the sports is higher than the average age of all the competitors in each one of those sports. We use data visualization to show that, interestingly, only five of those sports had any 50-plus medal winners since 1980. As you scroll through this story, different visuals appear that really help bring the story to life. It’s dynamic, it’s interactive and it’s kind of cool-looking with bright colors. And it’s fun to play with.
By the way, you can hover over any of these and get a little bit more information for everything along the way. So long story short, you can tell a very focused story with full screen, rich, animated interactive visuals. But you don’t lose the ability to go into depth. So the very end, I have this grid of every single Olympian who has ever won a medal beyond the age of 50, since 1980. And I have the ability to dive deep into all this stuff, too.
I had a lot of fun creating this. And of course, I found out that especially if I learned to ride a horse, earning a medal at 50 or up in equestrian events is very doable. A little insight for you all in case you’re interested!
Outsourcing vs. In-House
Bob: If a large B2B firm wants to begin doing stuff like this, what skills should they just outsource to people like you or to firms that do this? Or should they just bring people in house to do it, or both?
Bill: In the beginning, it’s always wise to outsource or at least part of it. I’ve worked with clients that hired an agency to produce it all, or they hired a designer or data visualization expert like me. But the team still has to execute on the ideas and build it into whatever tools the company will use. They may hire someone to consult with them and help them think through a few ideas, but they still show the team how to build their own.
I definitely would recommend piloting, experimenting, trying things and leaning on outside expertise at the beginning, before you build a team, because building a data visualization team can take many, many different forms.
One mistake I’ve seen is that companies build a team around tools; for example, “Let’s hire a bunch of Tableau people.” I love Tableau as a tool, but it may or may not be the best tool to create the best type of experience for thought leadership marketing. Instead, start with, “Why are we doing this? Well, we’ve created some thought leadership research, we want to get it out there. We want to demonstrate our expertise and all the other reasons we do thought leadership.”
Then think through: What is in our report and what action do we want our audience to take with this? A data visualization consultant can show you how to translate that into a really compelling experience for an audience. Eventually, you probably do want to build your own team. But first you need to know why you’re building a team and what you’re actually building it to do.
Expanding the Impact of Data Viz People
Bob: So if a big B2B company hires data visualization people and develops them, can their skills be used in other parts of the business? For example, can they switch from doing thought leadership marketing stuff to internal stuff that the public never sees?
Bill: I would say it’s perfectly fine to have them doing different work, because if I’m a strategic thinker, then I don’t care if I’m doing journalism, or thought leadership marketing, or doing internal data to help drive better decision-making internally. My job is to understand the problem you’re trying to solve, or the ideas you’re trying to communicate, the underlying data, the research that you’ve done, the insights that bubbled up…and then who your audience is.
If you’re starting to build a team, you won’t want to share them right away and you want to make sure they’re available for your projects. But long term, ideally, companies would have data visualization teams that could serve different functions in different ways. Because then you can start to standardize around tools, frameworks, approaches and brand standards within data visualization. This is big enough and important enough that there should not be silos, although we can all have some custom approaches and custom things we do.
Building the Capabilities Within
Bob: If a company wants to train editors, writers, social media marketers, thought leadership people, content development and others interested in data visualization, can it be done quickly and will it make them capable enough?
Bill: It is 100% teachable, but you have to be interested in data — which is not necessarily universal among marketing types, writers and designers. You definitely need some data literacy to work with data, but absolutely teachable. A few clients have hired me to work on a project, and part of my job is to do the coaching. Whether it’s formalized teaching or more informal coaching, the goal is helping the company run with it once I’m gone.
Bob: Do you see any patterns in the backgrounds of these people that are coming to these classes? Are they mostly editors, or PowerPoint specialists?
Bill: Not really, because data visualization is a team sport, particularly in the thought leadership marketing group. When I teach workshops, often I see all kinds of people in the room: editors, writers, designers, data people. The best projects happen when these people collaborate. And so part of what I’m teaching them is how to work together and talk with one another. Everyone can do what they do. And they just lean on one another for things that they’re not experts in.
Bob: What are the biggest, most common mistakes that B2B companies make in this arena? How can they avoid them?
Bill: Along with focusing on tools too much, another mistake is being obsessed with trying this “data viz thing” as if it’s just ticking a box, without asking why they are doing it and what they are trying to accomplish, or deciding ahead of time how they are going to measure success. For example, how many people clicked through the interactive experience and spent at least three minutes engaging with it, then downloaded the PDF, or then did X, Y, or Z?
Selling Data Viz to the Boss
Bob: So if someone at a company wants to explore data viz and they have budget pressure, would you advise them to prove that it’s actually going to accomplish something specific, like increasing the top line? Do you then advise them to track certain things if you’re under pressure to show that it’s a worthy investment?
Bill: If you want to track to the phone ring, and whether people buy stuff, good luck with that…although even that may be doable. For example, I run Google ads for my workshops, and I constantly question whether they are worth it. Are people clicking my ads, and am I getting web traffic? I do have a conversion tracker that shows when someone clicked my ad, went to my website, and filled out the form requesting information about my workshop. I consider that a successful transaction. I’ve gone as deep as I can, given the nature of my business, and some companies could probably take it even further. The bottom line: if you’re pulling dollars from one place to make this happen, and you’re going to be accountable for that, then try to figure out a way to be able to report up success to your managers.