Data + Viz + Words — what’s the point in blogging about your data visualizations?

Every week Andy and I get to look at an average of around 140 new vizzes for Makeover Monday. It’s really interesting to see how different people approach each challenge and what visualisations they create from the same dataset.

There are simple vizzes, complex dashboards, works of art and basic charts and they all have their place in our community.

What I genuinely enjoy is reading the blog posts created by a number of Makeover Monday participants along the way. And that is not just so I can entertain myself, but for a number of reasons which I will outline below.

I am convinced that blogging helps people become better at whatever it is they blog about.

In my world that happens to be data visualizations and I want to suggest to everyone who is looking for ways to improve their analysis and visualization skills, to consider starting a blog.

Here is why…

Blogging helps you organise your thoughts

Whenever you write something you inevitable have to think about it first. Speaking is much faster to do and words can just come out of your mouth before you had a chance to consider their impact (trust me, I know what I’m talking about). When you write, however, your thought has to first be translated into the physical action of typing or tapping or putting pen to paper, so there is a delay which gives you the chance to reconsider.

As you write more often, you will likely notice that you start following a certain process for organising your thoughts. I have found that I structure my thoughts in my head before I start an article and then follow a structure within each section of my posts as well. At least I try to.

The benefit of writing regularly about a certain topic, such as data visualizations, is that it forces you to organise your content into a format that others can comprehend and follow. And you gain clarity in doing so and in how you express yourself with every article you write (and the feedback you may receive).

Blogging helps you structure your process and approach

Let’s assume you blog about your Tableau visualisations, the stuff you’re creating, the data you’re using, why you’re doing it and how.

When you write about that topic for a public audience online and you want to be understood, it forces you to set the scene, to explain things in detail and to be very clear in the description of your processes and approach, because your readers aren’t there to look over your shoulder. Everything you want them to know you need to write down clearly so they understand.

A little detour to illustrate this point:

I like to think that my process descriptions are pretty decent and I credit my primary school teachers for that. Colleagues in my past jobs in Australia and New Zealand were surprised to hear me talk about having to write process descriptions in primary school (in Germany). We do it from a young age: how do you cook an egg? How do you get from point A to point B? How do you make a phone call from a public pay phone?

We had to describe in painstaking detail each and every process step, as if the person reading our description had no clue. And you better get the steps in the right order.

You want to cook eggs? Heat up some oil in the pan? NO. Go into the kitchen, get the frying pan out of the cupboard, place it on the stove and turn the element to 9…

When you describe processes, of course you can assume a certain level of knowledge and expertise from your readers. But make sure you start at the beginning, provide all the context your average reader will need and have a logical flow so they can follow each step along the way.

As you write about it, you will likely discover ways to improve your processes. In your head you probably jump from a to b to c then back to a. We all do. But when we teach others we have to be clear, orderly and logical.

Make the changes. Then write about it some more.

Blogging helps you verbalise your findings, insights and opinions

This is one of the biggest benefits of blogging and something I alluded to above. When you write about a topic, it forces you to take your knowledge, experience, opinions and thoughts and turn them into coherent sentences. That’s easier said than done.

How often do we catch ourselves showing someone our work in Tableau and telling them something along the lines of ‘click here, move this there and then update this’? Not a very good description if the person happens to be looking away during those 1.5 seconds…

Precision and accuracy in your writing will help your audience immensely. Let’s not be vague if we’re talking about very specific things, such as technical topic. If you’re describing the smell of lavender, by all means be creative. But if you’re trying to explain how to build the ultimate mobile viz or how to change measures in a chart by using a parameter, be specific, be precise and tell your readers exactly what they have to do to achieve the desired outcome.

The writing process not only encourages that accuracy but also helps you verbalise your findings. When you look at a dataviz or a dashboard and you have found some interesting insights, which you then have to explain to someone by email, it is great training for translating your thoughts and those visuals into a couple of paragraphs to provide context for the reader.

This practice will help you get better at getting your point across in various situations, be they written communication, a verbal discussion or a presentation to a live audience.

I have certainly noticed that I am getting much better at expressing myself in different situations. Having written a number of blog posts critiquing a viz (for #MakeoverMonday) has helped me find ways to describe things that can be improved about a viz and things that I like. It’s like having a toolkit and whenever I am presented with a dashboard or report or just a single chart now and someone wants feedback, I can draw on that experience and offer suggestions.

Blogging can help you address different types of learners

Not everyone learns the same way. Some people like watching videos on various topics, while others prefer to listen to a lecture or read a textbook.

Writing a blog gives you the option to cater to your entire audience, no matter what their preference is. Yes, your main content will likely be written articles, but you can enrich the posts with images, videos, links to other pages, etc. and create very comprehensive posts on every topic.

This in turn helps you learn how to create the best content, based on feedback from your readers as well as your own preferences. Maybe you always wanted to be a YouTube sensation but just feel really awkward recording videos… why not try writing about it instead? You might enjoy that more and after a while you’ll have more confidence to return to your video recordings and create much better content than before, because you have practiced verbalising your ideas. Plus, you’ll have an excellent library of ‘scripts’ that you can turn into engaging videos…

Blogging helps you share your content with your audience more effectively

So you’ve created a really cool viz on an interesting topic and you’re keen to share it with the world. Yes, you can post the image and Tableau Public link to Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook and Reddit and all these other platforms. But isn’t that selling yourself short?

Social media is very short lived and posts are forgotten and ‘outdated’ so quickly, it’s a shame for great work to go unnoticed due to that.

What if your readers want to know more about your viz than you could convey in 140 characters on Twitter? What if the viz is on a topic you don’t want to post on LinkedIn? What if none of your Facebook friends care about data visualisation?

Enter: The Blog.

On your blog you can do what you like. Keep it short and just post your latest viz. Go all out and blog about every viz with how-to’s, videos, reviews, etc. Or do something in between.

Your blog provides your readers with a reference point for later and it will be much easier for them to find the content even if months or years have passed. They can engage with you through comments and get a lot more context about your work based on what you post.

It also helps sometimes to simply outline your process and reasoning around a certain viz and put it into words, so people know how you arrived at your final viz.

And on a personal note, I love seeing the blogs around Makeover Monday. Yes, people can learn a lot by simply visualising each week’s dataset and posting it online. But I would argue that spending a little extra time to blog about what they did and why takes their improvement to a whole new level. Plus it helps others who are learning and are trying to improve their skills and Tableau techniques.

While not everyone has the opportunity to practice their presentation skills regularly, a blog is a great way to ‘present’ your work regularly with all the arguments and reasoning. And your audience is truly global

In Summary…

You can probably tell that I feel quite strongly about blogging and writing in general. And I’m somewhat biased, because I’ve always enjoyed writing, even those time consuming essays in school, be they in German, English or French.

Words to me are magical and they let you connect with others, share knowledge, thoughts and feelings and can be used in powerful ways.

I have arrived at the conclusion that if you have knowledge and skills in a certain area, it is your duty to share it with others.

There is enough for everyone to go around, so let’s not hold back and keep our talents to ourselves.

By contributing our best work to our communities, be they dataviz focused, or around gardening, childcare or cancer research, we can make our communities better and more valuable.

We’re all learning all the time and by sharing what we’ve learned with those who are just starting out, we can help them reach levels of expertise and job satisfaction and let them have a greater impact than they otherwise could.

And all of this without taking anything away from ourselves. Passing on what we know doesn’t diminish our own talents. Sharing our skills to help others doesn’t reduce the importance of our work. Helping another person grow and get better at what they do will never reflect poorly on us.

So let’s share what we know, what we do, what we’re good at. Share our passions and talents and skills. That way everyone wins.

How? Well, writing about it is a great first step…