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Friday, January 27, 2012

How to Make Charts and Graphs Exciting

Most charts and graphs are boring. Maybe not to you, since you made it and you're excited about the numbers, but everyone else sees it through a fog. They see the jumble of information and struggle to comprehend the point of all the data. In the end, it would be better to not show them a chart at all, rather than show something as incomprehensible and boring as the picture to the right.

What's wrong with it? First, there's too much information to digest in too little time. Your brain takes about 3 seconds to gather in the data and if it's not apparent in that time, you will shut down. Sure, the chart is clearly labeled and each line has its own color, but the three second test shows that it's a jumble. It takes a long time to get oriented to what's happening.

Second, the point of the chart isn't clear. You shouldn't show a chart in a presentation unless you're using it to make a point and you can't make a point if it's not clear. Using the same 3 second rule, how would you determine the meaning of a the chart above? In that short a time, all I can see is that things changed over time. But, looking at the chart to the left, in 3 seconds I can tell that there's been a dramatic drop in foreign investment by the United States. The point of the chart is clear and stunning, in just a short amount of time.

Finally, there's no emotion. Communication is, partly, about sharing data, but that data is carried in emotional word and images. What emotion do you want your chart to evoke? If it's boredom, go with the first chart. But if you want to inspire, frighten, encourage or reprimand people with your data, there needs to be a clear, emotional punch to your data. The second chart has a clear statement of what the data shows and then it has a quote explaining what's happening.


  • Remove clutter, a cleaner chart is easier to digest quickly.
  • Highlight your point visually, if other data should be ignored, remove it or fade it into the background.
  • Use different methods for visualizing data, steer clear of the line, bar and pie charts when possible. 
Check out a masterful presentation of data by Hans Rosling on CNN. 

*Note, that the data needs to be analyzed in detail, but that should happen before you give the presentation, then if someone wants to see all of the data that went into your charts, you can have it available and let them know why you drew the conclusions you did.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Can Congress Learn from SOPA/PIPA?

Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon shared an article through yesterday. In it he says:
Some businesses lament this fact when bad reviews start costing them business. But smart businesses recognize that even the bad reviews are an opportunity to understand their audience and improve their products and those that have gone the extra mile to understand the internet have, in many cases, found success.
But up until last week, Washington hadn’t learned these lessons.
This is a valuable point. Negative feedback online isn't necessarily a negative thing. It shows what is getting people's attention and gives you an opportunity to grow and change. He concludes with:
If members of Congress better understood the central role that the Internet plays in their constituents’ lives – the hub through which Americans work, communicate, share, learn, create and enjoy entertainment – they would understand why their constituents fought so hard to protect it.
If members of Congress better understood the digital world, they would know that downloading a digital good from a foreign site is no different than importing goods from a foreign country and if we accept that principle, we can do more than combat online infringement, we can work to promote our digital industries and tear down barriers to digital trade just as we do for any other American-made product.
When members of Congress better understand the Internet  they will see it as a world of opportunity to create jobs and foster innovation, to improve education and economic mobility, and most importantly to cultivate the sort of government our founders intended in which we hear and learn from our constituents. Congress ignores this opportunity at their peril.
He gets it. He understands what's happening and why this is such a big deal for millions of people. Because of that, he proposed a new bill before Congress known as the Online Protection and ENforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) which amends existing laws about copyright and trade to include the Internet. You can see a comparison between OPEN, PIPA and SOPA below.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Picnik is Shutting Down

The online photo editing tool, Picnik, is closing down as of April 19, 2012. Google advises that you "take heed" and find another online or desktop based tool to do your editing. I put together a list of some great alternatives here.

Have you been using Picnik? Are you sad that's it's closing?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Victory! Now What? Next steps for SOPA and PIPA

Due, in large part, to the wide-spread protests and blackouts that happened on Wednesday, the Senate has delayed a vote on the Protect Intellectual Property Act so that the bill can be fixed. The delay is a good thing, it's a sign that the thousands of websites and millions of signatures on the petition (4.5 million at last count), have had an effect on Congress. Great job, the Internet! Way to take a stand for your rights.

Now what?

Piracy is still a concern for Congress, especially due to the pressures of the music and movie lobbyists. Both bills still exist, they've just had the votes delayed. Without a viable alternative that meaningfully addresses the issues of foreign piracy of US intellectual property, something like SOPA and PIPA will rise again (or the very same bills with altered content).

The key concerns are that offshore companies can pirate US property with impunity since our copyright laws don't apply and our law enforcement has no jurisdiction. The proposed solution of SOPA and PIPA was to remove the sites from search engines and lists of websites (called Domain Name Servers, or DNS) in the US. But the real kicker is that there was no due process, no threshold and no mercy. Any site that infringed in any way that a company could complain about could be de-listed.

I would like to see added to PIPA and SOPA the qualification that the site in question must exist for the sole, or primary purpose of violating copyright law and/or be primarily used for that purpose. The recent shutdown of the US-based Megaupload speaks to the proper way to identify a site that is primarily used for piracy. Sure they are a file sharing site (not illegal), but their business practices involved encouraging pirates with bribes and driving traffic to downloads with pirated content for the purpose of generating more ad revenue. There is a clear case of a site being used, primarily, for piracy of copyrighted material. The case was established by the Department of Justice and all of the paperwork has been filed (all 72 pages of it).

But how does this address foreign sites? Well the US is a member of an international treaty called the Berne Convention (and the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty which caused us to create the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) which is designed to protect copyrighted works, as of 2008 there were 164 member countries. So, we have the channels in place to identify sites that are primarily for the use of pirating material and to gain the aid of other countries in shutting down sites that are violating copyright law.

I'm not directly opposed to the means by which SOPA and PIPA propose to block pirate sites, my main opposition is to the lack of due process and participation in the international community that already exists to address these issues. Within the DMCA, is a "Safe Harbor" clause which allows for websites and ISPs to take down infringing content and avoid liability. Don't punish the sites, punish the infringers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What do SOPA and PIPA accomplish?

I remember a while back when we subscribed to both cable Internet service and television. The budget got a little tight, so we decided to drop the TV. Through the course of the conversation with the person at the cable company, they informed me that I would have to pay a $20 disconnection fee. I asked why, since I wasn't disconnecting my service, just stopping the TV side of things. They said that without a blocker installed, I could, potentially, get free cable TV. So, they wanted to charge me $20 for the privilege of not getting free cable.

Wait, what? No.

I said, "It's not my job or financial responsibility to ensure that you don't give away your product for free. If you don't want me to have free cable, that's your problem, not mine."

The charge was removed.

I bring up this story because it makes me think of the issues underlying SOPA and PIPA, which are laws before the House and Senate respectively. They both provide the ability for the US to block websites that host pirated content. That seems pretty innocuous at first, but you must keep in mind that the entire site would be blocked for the posting of one piece of copyrighted content - by anyone, not just the owner of the site, but any user-generated content. Think of YouTube, Wikipedia and blogs where content is created by everyone. If anyone messes up, the whole site would be gone.

Now, whose responsibility is it to protect this content? To me, this seems similar to the cable company wanting me to pay for their inability to restrict my TV access. The MPAA and RIAA are two of the main sponsors for SOPA and PIPA, they are also the organizations who have sued individuals for hundreds of thousands of dollars for piracy. It's primarily their concern, so the primary burden should be on them. They don't want to cut into their profits, so they push ISPs and the government to do their job for them.

We already have anti-piracy laws on the books. The MPAA and RIAA are already successfully  prosecuting pirates for huge sums of money. They can already take down US sites that are found to be pirating content. What more do they want? They want the ability to restrict the access of all Americans to any website that they deem to be pirating content. Also known as censorship.

Whose job is it, anyway?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How to Get Your Ideas to Stick

Ideas fall like snowflakes on a ground that must be ready for them to stick.

I sit watching the snow fall out my window and I'm frustrated. It's been snowing, off and on, for the last two days, but the grass is showing green and the streets are clear. We are at that magical temperature where the snow falls and melts on contact, and we've been at that temperature for days. Just to the north there are people getting inches and inches of the stuff. To the east friends are posting pictures of snowmen. But here I sit with nothing.

Sure, I'm a kid at heart. I want a snow day. I want to play in the snow. I'm from the wet, temperate Pacific Northwest where snow is a rarity. It dominates the news coverage and thrills the school children (and me). So it's much more frustrating when the snow is falling, but not sticking. Big, fat flakes melting away into nothing.

Sometimes I feel like my ideas do the same thing. I fling them out with abandon. I create and share, but then nothing sticks. I've worked hard to produce the exact conditions necessary to make something new, new words, new images, new ideas. And the ground isn't ready. The ideas don't stick.

If snow could have feelings, it would be tempted to give up. To move on to places that are more ready to receive it. The mountains love the snow, but, if the snow works extra hard the aggregate affect of millions of ice crystals can change the temperature of the ground. One flake melts, but the temperature drops a fraction of a degree. A thousand flakes later, the ground is cooler, maybe even cold enough.

Your ideas may appear to melt on contact. You might feel like the ground isn't ready, like you should just go somewhere else to share. But what if you stay? What if you keep sharing? What if, like snowflakes, your ideas actual help to get the ground ready to receive more ideas?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Beg the Question

Look for the question that lies behind overt statements. Especially right now as election season is gearing up toward its most rancorous, there are a lot of bold statements being bandied about.

Health care.

Bank bailouts.




All of those topics have myriad points of view from which they can be approached. Politicians will make strong assertions about them one way or another. But under those assertions lies a question that is driving the discussion. If there wasn't a question, then it wouldn't be an issue that people are talking about.






So many issues are really questions, at heart. As you sit in church or school or at work and you hear bold claims. Ask yourself, what's the underlying question that makes this issue something to be discussed. When you start dealing with the questions, instead of the supposed answers, then it's possible to find some common ground and, perhaps, move toward some real answers.

As long as we remain unaware of the questions that are driving everything we say and do, we'll be unable to provide any real answers.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Start a Conversation with Your Sermon

Preaching isn't very popular. At least not among the younger crowd. There's this idea that preaching is inextricably tied to declarative truth which doesn't leave any space for differences of opinion. Since one person stands up and says words for an extended period of time, that precludes anyone else from sharing what they're thinking during that same time. Especially if that one person is also the lead pastor of the church and is in charge of the rest of what happens there, then it can seem rooted in authoritarianism.

The problem that most young people have with this is that they don't want to be told what to do. This is more than just the rebellion of youth, it's a shift in thinking away from trust in a central authority and toward trust in a community of peers. Both the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement are essentially anti-authoritarian. They want the community to decide what is best for the community.

So, in that climate, what role is there for preaching?

It can function as a conversation starter. If the tact of the preacher is to provide information and context and then leave the conclusion open, that allows the community to work through the implications. It's not that preaching is dead, just that preaching as if the pastor has the final say on the interpretation of God and scripture is not popular with younger people. And why should the preacher assume that they have the right interpretation? The major concepts of theology have been debated for millennia with no conclusion in sight. It's a better choice to invite people to conversation instead of inviting them to share your pre-drawn conclusions.

How can you create space for conversation? What sermons have been most successful for you? Which ones have flopped?

Monday, January 09, 2012

Tolkien didn't get a Nobel Prize due to Poor Story Telling

JRR Tolkien was denied the Nobel Prize in literature five decades ago, the reason of record: "the result has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality." His friend and professor of literature, CS Lewis, nominated him for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, when the committee reviewed the work, along with that of Robert Frost and EM Forster, among others, they were all found to be lacking (or written by people who are too old), so the prize was awarded to Ivo Andrić. Unless you're a literature major, you've probably never heard of him. Whereas the losers are world renowned (some of them, at least).

Fifty years after the prize is awarded, the records of the Nobel committee's reasoning become available to the public. Swedish reporter Andreas Ekström has taken it upon himself to look through the documents when they are declassified. This year he found Papa Tolkien's name on the list of losers.

Prizes and accolades are nice, but art is meant to be shared. Since becoming the biggest loser in 1961, The Lord of the Rings has risen to be the most loved book(s) in the United Kingdom and perhaps the best known fantasy work of all time. Too bad it's not very well written.

What have the critics said about you?

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Jumping the Shark

Are you jumping the shark? Portland pastor, Bob Hyatt asked if Seattle pastor, Mark Driscol has "jumped the shark" with Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together*, his new book with his wife, Grace.

The reference is to the episode of Happy Days when Fonzie jumps a shark (literally), which has come to mean when a show, or anything else for that matter, abandons its core success and begins a downward spiral into oblivion. So when Starbucks coffee started selling instant coffee, that might be considered jumping the shark, or when Porsche made an SUV for soccer moms, or you can fill in your own thoughts.

It's almost inevitable that a brand, show, person, church or pastor will be tempted to jump the shark. It's so much harder to keep doing the same thing and continue being successful. Rather, if you keep doing the same thing, you will limit your success. You will only reach a limited number of people if you keep doing the same thing. You can branch out and do something different to reach a new audience. But you run the risk of jumping the shark.

Does your new message flow naturally from what you've been saying all along? If you were to poll 100 people on the street, would they choose your new path based on what they know about your organization? Do you have any credibility to speak to this new area? Are there any sharks involved?

What have you seen that looks like shark-jumping?

*Note, if you purchase the book through this link, I earn a small commission. I haven't read this book and I can make no endorsement of it.

Monday, January 02, 2012

What's the Difference between a Wish and a Resolution?

It's the time of resolutions. The year is new and so are our hopes for the future. Now is the time when we reaffirm our goals and plan to do better. The problem is most of what passes for a resolution is actually just wishful thinking.

A wish is a stated hope that things will be different in the future. You can wish to win the lottery or to have magic powers just as much as you can wish for losing weight, biking more and working less. Cross your fingers, close your eyes and hope, but the likelihood that you'll work less is about the same as you getting those magic powers.

A resolution is a stated course to act differently in the future. When you resolve, you commit to do something different, which is specific and active. Look at the picture here, this is a typical list of resolutions, but only one of them is close to being actionable. Losing a specific amount of weight is almost a resolution, but it's still more a wish that things will be different rather than a plan of action to make things different.

If your "resolution" has the words "more" or "less" in it, then you might as well wish for that unicorn, because you are as likely to get it. Get specific, make a SMART goal, and know how you are going to act differently tomorrow to achieve your goal. Instead of saying you want to work less, say that you will work no more than 40 hours a week. Don't say  that you want to ride your bike more, instead say that you will ride for one hour a day, five days a week. Don't say that you want to have a better marriage, get a book with one conversation a week to help you do it. Know, specifically, the individual actions you're going to take to achieve your goal and you can keep your resolutions.

What advice do you have for keeping resolutions?