Looks matter when you present numbers, says “Painting with Numbers” author

Painting with Numbers by Randall BoltenNumbers are critical when financial professionals communicate with the clients and colleagues. However, poorly crafted communications with numbers can sabotage you. Randall Bolten’s Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You will improve your effectiveness.

I was particularly taken with Bolten’s chapter called “Looks Matter.”

As Bolten says, your use of white space, font styles, and other visual cues can make a big difference in readers’ understanding. These cues tell your readers “how they should group your information and what’s not important, and where you want them to focus first.”

Here are some chart and spreadsheet tips from Bolten’s “Looks Matter” chapter.

Tip 1: “Put the important numbers where they’re easy for the reader to find, which is usually around the edges.” Think about it. The eye will seek the “bottom line” when looking at financial statements.

Tip 2: Use white space to set off the main elements. This could mean setting off groups of rows, such as revenues or cost of sales. It might also mean breaking 12 months of data into clusters of three months.

Tip 3: Show time periods across the top of the report. This takes advantage of the English-speaking world’s habit of reading from left to right. Plus, the numbers in an income statement then fall into a mathematically logical order of revenues, expenses, and profits.

Tip 4: Use font and cell formatting choices wisely. This means highlighting the most important numbers using boldface, colored or italicized text, borders or cell shading. Don’t go overboard with special effects. As Bolten says, “Not only is an overdressed report hard to understand, but the impact of the visual effects that do have a valid purpose becomes diluted because the reader can’t tell which effects are meaningful and which aren’t.”

 Useful book for numbers people

I’m more of a word person than a numbers person. If I ever had to dig more deeply into spreadsheets, I’d study Bolten’s book closely for its tips on designing and using Microsoft Excel to create reader-friendly output. Bolten’s philosophy of “painting with numbers” lines up nicely with my approach to working with words.

Disclosures: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

2 replies
  1. Randall Bolten
    Randall Bolten says:

    Many thanks for the write-up of “Painting with Numbers”! You hit a number of points that I feel strongly about.
    As the author, I almost never post comments on reviews, but I note that you describe yourself as more of a “words person” than a “numbers person.” I would humbly suggest that in the area of investment writing, the distinction is pretty muddy regardless of whether you’re on the investor relations or the securities analysis side – you can’t write about the subject without discussing the numbers.
    One of my key messages in “Painting with Numbers” is that presenting numbers is a COMMUNICATION skill and not a math skill. Even if you’re not a numbers geek, that’s no reason you can’t present numbers clearly and effectively. Don’t sell yourself short – after all, the best books about the theory of relativity have been written by non-physicists.
    Regards, Randall Bolten

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