“I think I always had an interest in data visualization, although I may not have realized it,” says Naomi B. Robbins about her work today as the principal at NBR Graphs. When she isn’t working one-on-one with clients, she’s traveling around the world to give speeches and seminars at universities, professional societies, and conferences. All of these efforts focus on one key element: Teaching others how to communicate their data more clearly.
It was Bill Cleveland’s book “The Elements of Graphing Data” that first sparked her interest in the field after leaving Bell Laboratories. She calls Cleveland “perhaps the top person in the world in this field,” and she reached out to him as a fellow lab employee with the hopes of teaching from his book. Robbins’ request was met with tremendous encouragement and she went on to write what she considers a translation of his book, “Creating More Effective Graphs.”
Even though I found the book to be absolutely beautifully written, non-technical people were intimidated by it… So, I translated his book from technical terms to everyday terms to reach this wider audience.
One of the key points that Robbins emphasizes when she publicly speaks is that people should “treat numbers with the same respect that we treat words.”
Nobody would ever write a business document in the fanciest font on their computer. I mean, you’d laugh in my face if I tried to turn in a PhD dissertation in Algerian… But people think that their numbers will be boring if they don’t decorate them.
Robbins sees people miscommunicating their data daily, and her job is to help others correct this. However, instead of simply doing the work for them, Robbins teaches others how to correct their graphs themselves. Below is an example of a piece Before & After Robbins’ insight: She took the information from these multiple pie charts and combined them into one graph that better illustrated the author’s main point.
There’s nothing that makes me happier than seeing one of my clients come out with something that really communicates well, so that I teach more than I do.
The benefits to visually displaying data are tremendous, according to Robbins. She says that while tables show an audience exact numbers, graphs and charts illustrate trends, patterns, and exceptions that “have the power to make you understand a dataset in a way that tables just do not.”
As one of the founders of the New Jersey chapter of the American Statistical Association, Robbins has served every role – from treasurer, to secretary, to president – and is looking forward to July 1, when the association will officially announce her as the Chair-Elect of the Statistical Graphics section for 2015.
Follow Robbins on Twitter (@nbrgraphs) and read her blog on Forbes to hear more tips & tricks on better communication skills, and be sure to sign up with iCharts to start marketing your data more effectively.