Conveying messages with graphs at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Early on Tuesday morning, Jean-luc Doumont presented a session titled Conveying Messages with Graphs. The blurb for this session is:

Graphical displays are still poorly mastered by technical communicators and other professionals. They seldom think of using graphs to communicate about data; when they do, they often use the wrong graphs or in the wrong way. Based on Doumont’s book Trees, Maps, and Theorems, about “effective communication for rational minds,” this session discusses how to select the right graph and how to optimize the graph’s construction, and how to phrase a useful caption.

Because this session is immediately before mine, I’ve decided not to take extensive notes. I’m too scatterbrained just before and just after live speaking! Instead, I’ll just give you my impressions from Jean-luc’s talk.

Jean-luc is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker, and the topic is very important in technical communication. I’m one of those text-oriented people. I find graphs difficult to interpret, and also difficult to create. A simple bar chart is good, but when you get to scatter-charts and 3D graphs, you leave me behind.

That’s why I attended Jean-luc’s session – to pump up my knowledge of conveying information in graphs. And I wasn’t disappointed. I’m now more comfortable with the more advanced types of graphs. More importantly, I know when to employ the simpler graphs, and how to knock out superfluous information. Simpler is better, as in most types of technical communication.

My two key take-aways are:

  • Beware of the x-axis in Microsoft Excel. It assumes the data is string-based, even if you enter numerical values. If you want a true numerical reflection of your data, you need to set the data type explicitly.
  • Horizontal bar charts are often more effective than vertical ones. The default is often vertical, but try flipping it around. A big advantage is avoiding vertically-oriented text.

Thanks Jean-luc for an informative presentation, delivered with charm. Here is a link to the handout from the session (PDF): Effective graphical displays.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 8 May 2013, in STC, technical writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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