“It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it.”

Okay, perhaps that’s overstating the case, however, the way in which you present data deserves at least as much attention as the figures themselves.

We want to take that idea and make it work for us when producing tables and graphs. We are not concerned with the statistics but rather the way in which the presentation of that data can facilitate communication.

The Mysterious World of the Subconscious

Visual information fed to the brain is subconsciously accumulated through a process commonly referred to as ‘pre-attentive processing’. Information deemed useful is then selected for conscious ‘attentive processing’.

The brain loves visual patterns! If a specific visual stimulus is presented over and over again then the brain is exponentially more likely to select it for conscious attentive processing. If you want to convey a message efficiently you need to present an effective visual pattern.

Making Patterns Jump off the Page

Consider the table below. How quickly can you identify the number of times the number 3 appears in the data?

It probably took you several seconds to come to an answer. The correct number is, in fact, nine times. Now repeat the exercise with the table below.

The only difference between the two tables is that we included a pre-attentive attribute in the second table to trigger your brain. That attribute is color intensity.

Messing with Your Mind

Although the brain responds positively to color intensity it struggles to assign values to different levels of intensity. Try it out for yourself using the diagram below. Can you quantify how much lighter the square on the right is compared to the square on the left and assign a value?

Before we discuss anything further, review that diagram again with the background removed.

You cheated, didn’t you? You probably couldn’t help but glance at the diagram below and realize that each of the grey squares has the same color intensity. Even armed with that information your brain struggled to make sense of what it was seeing. It was trying to convince you that the rightmost square was several shades lighter than the leftmost square.

What we are seeing here is that our brains are in fact not great at measuring absolute values, but that they are wired up to help us discern differences, therefore, color intensity is best applied in a binary way.

Hue Knew?

Jump into Excel and take a look at the way hue is quantified; Excel uses a scale from 0 – 255 for red, green and blue. If the brain struggles with intensity, how is it going to cope when we throw hue into
the mix?

If hue is to be used effectively then the range of hues employed should be restricted to an absolute maximum of just 8, at appropriate levels of separation.

Review the two graphs below. Both use just four hues. What do you notice?

The brain is much more successful when differentiating between hues for large shapes. The smaller the shape the less impactful the hue is, evident in the scatter graph above which was created in Excel. By default, it assigned a color to each series in our data, but is this really necessary? What does it add to the message?

If we create a table in black text and use red text for only one column, then this immediately flags the column as important. We should, therefore, use hue sparingly, only highlighting the data that is meaningfully significant.

Consider the enhanced impact of the graph below. We’ve reduced the use of hue which actually increases the impact on the brain’s preattentive processes.

You’ll notice that we’ve also refrained from using red or green for the flagged bar. These colors have distinct significance in different cultures, risking the possibility of mixed messages.

Pulling the Analysis Together

Use color intensity and hue to enhance the impact on the brain’s pre-attentive processes but do so sparingly. Too much differentiation can overload the brain’s ability to move data into the realm of conscious attentive processing.

Have you read ‘Essential Excel shortcuts for successful financial modeling‘ yet?