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Turn Your Data Into a Visual Spectacle

  • By Ira Apfel and Andrew Deichler
  • Published: 2/13/2017

Data visualization is often an essential tool for financial planning and analysis (FP&A) professionals as they attempt to convey a plethora of complicated information to different facets of the business. At the recent AFP Annual Conference, visual storyteller and designer Catherine Madden, also a former consultant with Deloitte, discussed digital scribing, data storytelling and visual workshops with the AFP Conversations podcast.

During 45-minute sessions in which AFP Conference speakers discussed treasury and finance topics, Madden would create visual stories out of presentations in real time. Drawing on her iPad, she provided graphic illustrations that were distributed over social media and in a slide presentation format. Her colleague, Jim Nettles, did the same thing, only on large poster boards that were then put on display throughout the conference.

AFP: We've never graphic illustrations like this at the annual conference. It’s quite extraordinary and people really seem to like it. How did you get into this?

Catherine Madden: At Deloitte, they would hire graphic illustrators and visual practitioners to come in and make the conversation more engaging. I witnessed people from outside of the company getting brought in to do this and I thought, ‘Hey, I could probably do this myself and save Deloitte some money and build up this cool, exciting new skill that I didn't realize was valuable.’

I just started out by whiteboarding in our weekly status meetings on different client projects and people were really drawn to the fact that rather than talking in a circular manner without having clear action items at the end of every week and making progress, they could actually see the progress on the board. That became something that other clients would reach out to and ask for within the one client I was working with at the time. From there, I developed my own version of this.

AFP: Your job must be very fun, but also really challenging because you have to listen really carefully and then translate what you've heard in real time. You can't process, to a certain extent. You have to just hear it and put it right up there. How did you even build up that skill?

Madden: There are actually studies that look at what you hear and what you retain from listening when you type your notes on a computer versus listening when you write them down. The difference in your mind is that you’re more attentively listening.

Think about when you’re just typing your notes on your laptop. All you’re trying to do is keep up and so you’re switching into this processing mode where you’re more focused on what your fingers are doing, inputting into the keyboard, than what the people are actually saying.

If you draw it or write it in a notebook, your brain has to switch into a mode where it’s actually listening for key points and synthesizing information, and so you don’t actually write every word down because you just can’t possibly do that. You have to slow down and really listen for the key points.

There are obviously some cheats in there; you can get the slides ahead of time and review them and have a basic plan, but you can never just replicate what you think is going to be said based on the content that’s provided to you in advance because it can always change.

AFP: Many FP&A professionals are trying to do a better job presenting information, and they’re very interested in data visualization. What advice would you give someone who says, ‘I've got to move beyond the spreadsheet and I need to visualize?’ How would you get them started?

Madden: If you go backwards to when I started my career, there were only like one or two pieces of software that were really effective to create charts and graphs and make them look interesting. But over that course of time, tools have become way more user-friendly and things have been introduced where you don’t have to be a developer and you don’t have to be any sort of specialized designer. It creates really impactful charts that tell a good story without having to spend too much time or money to learn these tools.

I would say that the best place to start is by going back to the basics of storyboarding and storytelling. Everything that you visualize should answer a question. Say I’m going to give a presentation to the CFO. What are the questions that the CFO has? Write them all down and map out the words and the questions. Say they want to know how throughput has changed over quarter-over-quarter, year-over-year. The answer to that question will be presented best in a line graph, because we’re looking at this over time and whether it’s trending up or down.

Really it starts with the questions and maybe before you even invest in learning any sort of data visualization tool, start by sketching what that chart could look like. You probably will be able to find someone in your organization who does have the skills and there are some really good visualization capabilities in Excel and PowerPoint too.

There's an opportunity for everyone to spruce up what they're doing and create something that’s visual and ultimately more memorable and more impactful in terms of telling your story to your audience.

AFP: What is the biggest mistake that folks make with data visualization?

Madden: I think it would be just starting with your rows and columns and clicking around all of the different chart types and just arbitrarily choosing one, whether or not it’s the right one for the message. And I think if you don’t start with the question that you need to answer first, you can easily go into information overload or present people with unnecessary information and extra junk that doesn't help your story.

To hear the entire conversation, visit

For more tips, download AFP's FP&A Guide to Data Visualization here.
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