Monday 22 June 2009

Book Review: the say it with charts complete toolkit

There are very few books that you find, which teach you so much in short time. This book is one of them. Written by Gene Zelazny, this book offers definitive advice on how to communicate your message using charts. Gene is the Director of Visual Communications at McKinsey & Company. That fact itself establishes the credibility of the book even before you start reading it. But it is only after reading the book; you find it as a real treasure. Many thanks to the author for sharing his wisdom! I not only read the book, I "experienced" it, thanks to the writing style of the author and the inclusion of the practice sections in the book.
The book is divided into four sections. First section describes the process of moving from data to chart form. This process consists of three steps: determine your message, identify the comparison and select the chart form. The message and not the data that determines the chart form, hence determining the message is the first step in the process. Once the message is determined, it leads to one of following five basic types of comparison:
  1. Component: Percentage of a total
  2. Item: Ranking of items
  3. Time Series: Changes over time
  4. Frequency Distribution: Items within ranges
  5. Correlation: Relationship between variables
For third step, the author has suggested that following chart forms should generally be used for each of the types of comparison:
  1. Component: Pie
  2. Item: Bar
  3. Time Series: Column and Line
  4. Frequency Distribution: Column and Line
  5. Correlation: Bar and Dot Chart
The author has then discussed each of the comparison types and has illustrated how these chart types can be used. The first section concludes with two work projects that help reinforce the concepts presented in this section.
The second section consists of 80 charts, organized around five comparison types. They are presented in increasing order of complexity ranging from, say, one pie per chart to multiple pies. While charts are focus of first two sections, third section presents concept visuals and visual metaphors. The concept visuals consist of abstract geometrical shapes such as arrows, circles and triangles. The visual metaphors, on other hand, include everyday objects such as puzzles, mazes and ladders. The author calls these visuals as solutions in search of a problem. His advice is to use this section as a portfolio of thought starters. These visuals are available as EMF files on the CD accompanying the book.
The fourth and last section of the book is what you would love the most. Aptly titled as "Play it with charts", it provides the reader a practice ground for practicing whatever is learnt till then. It provides a series of business charts, with author's solution on next page. While it is tempting to flip the page to see the author's solution, the authors suggests the reader to first try himself/herself the solution before looking at author's solution. This exercise helps immensely to reinforce the lessons learnt.
In all, it is a must-read for any business executive or consultant! It's a great investment of time and money, which will provide enriching dividends over a long period of time.

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