5 Ways to Look Smarter in Meetings by Learning to Interpret Data on the Fly

Last Updated Mar 9, 2010 9:19 PM EST

Not everyone in the business world can be blessed with the mind of a mathematician. Perhaps that's why the crime drama Numbers is so popular -- David Krumholtz is always making those clever analogies that explain complex math in simple terms which make us feel smarter.

Unfortunately, the tendency for our eyes to glaze over at the sight of complicated charts or screens full of sales numbers can be a detriment in meetings, where we need to be able to say smart things on the fly. I've got some tips to help you make sense of all that data without going back to school for a math degree.


Over at FlowingData, doctoral candidate Nathan Yau lists five tips for understanding and interpreting numbers. Some of these might come in handy the next time you're presented with a triangle chart in a strategic planning session.

1. See the big picture. Take a step back. What is the overall chart showing? Often, all you need to take away is a trend; the details might just be noise.

2. Attention to detail. Then again, look for little blips or irregularities that could be important. If you see a fairly steady line but a weird divot in the middle, ask why that is. It could reveal an important truth that has a significant on your planning.

3. Leave the agenda at the door. Be as objective as possible. You might want the data to say something, but avoid letting that influence your interpretations.

4. Look outside the data. Rarely do numbers, charts, or graphs mean anything on their own. You need to understand the context in which they were born -- so learn how to ask questions about where the data came from and what assumptions were made to get it.

5. Ask why. Keep asking questions -- especially if the numbers don't make sense to you, ask why. [via Lifehacker]

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