What I remember most about the movie “Inside Out” is a scene about forgetting. And it has helped to shape my thoughts on presenting data.
In the 2015 Pixar film, memories are shining orbs sent through vacuum tubes to “Long Term,” a mammoth storage room with, nevertheless, limited capacity. So “Mind Workers” continuously cull the memory orbs, discarding the unnecessary ones – old phone numbers, piano lessons, names of past presidents – into the “Memory Dump.” I remembered this scene most recently when:
1) I heard Bryan Caplan interviewed on NPR. He’s an economist who wrote the thought-provoking book The Case Against Education. One argument Caplan makes against education is that we mostly forget it. He cites studies that show little retention of both facts and generalized skills post college.
2) My 12- and 14-year-old daughters’ love of YouTube channels like Oversimplified, In A Nutshell, and Crash Course. These funny, brief videos explain stuff I’ve forgotten (or perhaps never learned, who knows?) like the origins of the French Revolution and how the immune system works.
So here’s the question: Given that our brains are continuously purging information, particularly details, and retaining, at best, big picture stuff that can be contained in a 10-minute video, should we not bother with the details in the first place? My short answer is no. For me, it’s about who should spend time on the details and when.
If you are presenting data in any form, it’s incumbent upon you to know the details of the data -- what the trends are overall and by subgroup, who or what is not represented in the data, where the outliers are. And then the idea is to transfer aspects of this knowledge in the right form for the right people, paying as much attention to what you exclude as to what you include.
Some of the people will only need the biggest picture, but even they should to be tipped off to any exceptions to the rule hidden in the data. They also need to know where to go to learn more if and when they want to. Some of the people will need a more detailed rendering of the data, but don’t give them so many trees that they can’t see the forest. Indeed, they may retain the details more if you give them a general picture first which serves as a scaffolding on which they can attach details presented later.
And here’s hoping you retain the gist of this data tip!
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