Published: 29/07/2004, Volume II4, No. 5916 Page 21

There is no justification for presenting NHS data as baffling tables and graphs. If you are one of the guilty ones, your number's up, says Sally Bigwood

Whether in internal reports, publications or Powerpoint presentations, it is a sad truth that terrible tables and graphs abound in the NHS.

By terrible I mean those where the pertinent message or figures are difficult to ascertain. Clear, unambiguous numeric information contributes to good management and to the best use of resources.

Lucid, unequivocal tables and graphs improve decision-making because everyone knows and understands the facts. They save time, shorten meetings and make a good impression.Organisations that provide user-friendly numeric information are more likely to enjoy the confidence of patients, staff and other stakeholders.

After looking at hundreds of tables and graphs, I can report that impenetrable displays are rarely caused by complex content. Over 90 per cent of graphs and tables require only basic arithmetic. If you have the education to read this article, you should be able to understand quickly all the management statistics that come your way. If you can't, blame the author, not yourself.

Unintelligible tables and graphs are most commonly caused by poor design. The best tables and graphs - the ones that communicate with ease - are plain, uncluttered and emphasise the figures.

Unfortunately, clutter is a standard feature in popular computer software. To make tables and graphs user friendly, you should delete borders, gridlines, shading, embolding, data labels, tick marks, etc.

Avoid 3D graphs (they distort the data) and round numbers to one decimal place.

Another common error is overwhelming readers with statistics. Designing a table or graph involves the selection of pertinent information and ignoring the rest. Tables and graphs that focus on a specific message are more persuasive and memorable. Drowning your readers in numbers is like saying: 'I do not know what these figures mean, but maybe you can work it out.'

A surprisingly high proportion of tables and graphs are incomprehensible through incomplete or obscure titles and labels. People either omit words or use unfamiliar language, abbreviations or jargon.

To improve your presentation of figures, start by thinking of your audience.Which figures will help them understand the point you are trying to make? Which type of display will allow them to take in the information quickly and recall it later? Make the message obvious.You are not trying to create a puzzle for the reader, but to give explicit information.

Play a part in raising public expectations. Refer people to standard BS 7581: A Guide to the Presentation of Tables and Graphs, which promotes clear, simple presentations. Explain that most graphs should be readable by most adults.

The NHS is data rich and information poor.We have lots of statistics, only some of which ever help decision makers. Like learning to write competently, it takes time to learn how to express numeric ideas. But it is worthwhile: the ability to communicate figures quickly, efficiently and coherently is increasingly becoming an essential skill in the 21st century.

Sally Bigwood is a project manager, Manchester NHS Agency.