Painting With Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You

​Randall Bolten (John Wiley & Sons, 2012)

Reviewed by Michelle Kiec

Painting With Numbers provides a tutorial of best practices in the visual presentation of spreadsheets, charts, and graphs. In the course of their work, institutional researchers must competently present findings in manners that are easily comprehended by their target audiences (presidents, board members, administrators, faculty, and the public). This text provides practical tips for effectively displaying both numerical data and text in reports, thereby reducing levels of non-comprehension and increasing the probability that reports will be read and understood.

The text is divided into four sections—The Rules, The Tools, Real Mastery, and Wrap-Up—which are further divided into 16 chapters. Each chapter presents an aspect of quantation, defined as “the act of presenting numbers, such as financial results, electronically or in written form for the purpose of informing an audience.” Chapter topics include Numerals Matter, Looks Matter; The Pitfalls of Presentations and PowerPoint; It’s Clear, But Is It Meaningful?; and Speaking Truth to Power. Bolten tightly organizes each chapter around the designated topic, complete with neatly written conclusions that summarize the content of the chapter. Readers benefit from exploring separate chapters, complete sections, or the book in its entirety.

Bolten spent more than 30 years as a fiscal executive in high-growth and high-potential Silicon Valley companies. He draws on this experience to create three categories of quantation rules: Deadly Sins, Strong Advice, and Laws of Quantation. Deadly Sins, as the name implies, are formats best avoided; they produce reports that are ineffective in presentation and include shrinking font size to fit a report on a single page, taping multiple pages together to form a continuous report, presenting numbers without context, and use of poor captions. In all cases presented, Bolten argues that the format of the report is in error, and should be redesigned. An appendix of Deadly Sins is included for handy reference.

The second category, Strong Advice, includes ideas that will save time or minimize frustration. While Bolten uses the term “strong advice,” he also cautions that these ideas should be followed by the astute quantation professional, as they will serve to enhance the quality and comprehensibility of reports.

In the final category, Laws of Quantation, Bolten approaches the topic from a multi-faceted perspective. The text neither explains how to use Excel nor does it provide any sample reporting formats. Instead, the reader is guided through principles that allow reports to be more easily and readily understood by consumers of the information. The addition of an appendix for the Deadly Sins is a terrific asset, and it would be helpful if future editions of the text include appendices for Strong Advice and Laws of Quantation.

The author demonstrates proper presentation techniques with examples of both effective and ineffective presentations of data. Bolten explains the reasons a particular report is poorly constructed, and what the quantation expert might change. He carefully explains that there is no “right” reporting format, and that professionals are encouraged to develop their own voices in the field. Eventually, experts develop “signatures” so that readers instinctively identify authors based on the visual appearances of reports.

Finally, the author explains why certain visual formats change readers’ grasps of information. For instance, Bolten describes the basic conventions of GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles), the several-thousand page document that guides accountancy professionals in their work, and why selected formats, such as underlining numbers, are appropriate only when they match the principles that are internationally accepted in the accounting community. While these conventions may be second nature to accountants, they are revealing for institutional researchers from different academic backgrounds.

This volume would be useful as a reference text in any institutional researcher’s collection, as it presents ideas that are relevant to both the novice and the seasoned professional. The text is formatted to allow readers to select particular areas of interest and concentrate on those principles. Vital information regarding choice of fonts, shading, colors, white space, margins, and alignment styles is critical reading for every IR office, as following these principles increases the likelihood that reports will be read and understood. While Bolton does not mandate any specific reporting styles, it would serve an IR office well to use his layout rules for the creation of templates.

The more detailed chapters on GAAP may be of interest only to presenters of financial data, as Bolten states in the preface. However, as IR offices are increasingly responsible for financial-based reports, this information could be critical for non-accountants, too.  Even the most basic financial presentation standards (aligning figures to the right, underlining only numbers that precede sums, aligning dates chronologically in ascending order on the horizontal axis, proper abbreviations, and rounding) are valuable reminders for all reporters, as the flow of reports can be used to greatly enhance reader understanding.

Painting With Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You provides a concise and readable text for the presentation of data in a comprehensible format. This book is recommended for institutional researchers and other administrators who prepare reports that include numerical data.

Michelle Kiec is Associate Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Kutztown University.



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Total Comments: 1
Jacqueline posted on 1/17/2013 11:16 AM
This sounds great. Financial reporting is tricky enough - anything to help ensure the point gets across is always appreciated. And I've certainly come across more than just a few reports that would fit into the "Deadly Sins" category!