What’s on my mind today is tables. We’re often coached to avoid these dense blocks of numbers. but I’ve come around to thinking that sometimes tables are the right tool for the job.
When I attended my first AEA conference, I was impressed by the visually appealing presentations and data displays that were the norm – so different from what I saw at typical academic conferences! I worked hard to find alternatives to tables for evaluation reporting, and completely stopped using them in presentations.
Then two experiences convinced me to rethink tables. First was a series of tricky interactions with an evaluation client. This person was skeptical about the scientific rigor of the findings we were sharing. After reflection and dialogue with colleagues, I concluded that our user-friendly data visualizations were, well, too user-friendly. To this audience, understanding results at a glance suggested that something had been left out or that the science might be lacking. Sharing the dense, information-packed tables behind the visually-engaging materials we’d prepared increased their trust in our expertise.
Tables are their own kind of rhetoric
If your evaluator’s “spidey sense” tells you that your audience needs the comfort of working with an expert, or a gentle reminder that you know your science, a table can communicate these implicit messages along with its explicit contents.
The second situation came up when I was prepping an AEA demonstration. I spent literally hours trying to “de-table” my slides on Latent Class Analysis before I ran out of time, gave up, and put the tables onto a handout. To my surprise (and delight!), audience members told me how much the tables added and how these details complemented the higher-level messages on our slides.
Put tables on handouts
Sometimes you actually can have it both ways. If you’re doing a presentation, consider using a slide with your take-away learnings AND a handout with the table that backs them up. Tables can complement your other visualizations in both presentations and reports.
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