Heat Maps Capture the Big Picture

Heat maps may not be used as much in research reports these days but I think they are still an excellent way to visually capture and share complex information in one compelling snapshot. The appeal and magic of a heat map is that it’s easy for just about everyone to quickly see, process and grasp patterns in the data. It also generates a lot of attention when the heat map reveals an interesting pattern. A well-constructed heat map is still a great tool to quickly capture attention and spark a BIG picture discussion in any presentation.

Consider the above example—a partial heat map I recently saw in a blog post. Without knowing anything more about the context of the data represented, you can quickly see the large red patch indicating that something really bad happened along the right side and consistently down the page.

What if I told you that this was part of a larger heat map that Vanguard’s chief economist used in a recent presentation while discussing the future of the economy and housing sector? And, that the x-axis (horizontal) is a timeline and the y-axis (vertical) is housing market data by state. Now, the information presented quickly takes on additional meaning. In just a few moments, you have processed a snapshot of a very complex data set spanning 20+ years. That is the power of a great heat map.

The Importance of Developing a Pitch

I received a call from a non-profit struggling to regroup after finding out they were turned down for a much needed and anticipated government grant to boost emergency services in the community. The non-profit had one shot to file a new grant application within 30 days but were unsure on how to proceed. They asked me to step in to review all the materials and help craft a new content strategy.

After hearing the non-profit’s story and reading through everything it became clear why the grant request was not funded. While the needs and supporting data were well documented, the application failed to answer a fundamental question. Why should this request be funded above all others?

Whether you’re asking management to fund a business idea or seeking funds for your non-profit, it’s important to develop a pitch that transforms facts and figures into a compelling story of why you should be funded. With the time clock ticking, I focused this assignment on 3 things to help the team find a new strategy.

Understand the needs of the audience.

I started with a scavenger hunt to find and review the available information about the granting agency and grant program goals. I also explored strategies from past winners to develop more clues. Then, I called the agency to clarify my assumptions and identify what was missing.  At this point I had a good understanding of the grant committee needs and in the process uncovered a few surprises that would help spark ideas and a new direction for the team.

Use visual maps to help build clarity and focus.

Government grants are notoriously complex excavations in gathering and synthesizing information. This grant was no exception with 30+ pages of application guidelines. To help move quickly from gathering to synthesizing, I created a visual map of the elements the stakeholders would be using to evaluate the grant applications. Not only was it eye-opening to see the grant process from the grant agency’s point of view, it also helped shift the non-profit’s thinking on their needs. We used the visual map as a jump off point to expand the ideas in the original grant request.

Leverage the team’s story.

With the visual map in hand, I spent time at the firehouse listening to the volunteers that provide fire and emergency services to the community. Hearing the volunteers’ stories helped bring to life the needs and challenges in the community in a way that data never could.

Combining the team’s stories with the new understanding of the granting agency goals helped us brainstorm and develop a 5 year plan focused on high-impact ideas.  The non-profit was able to file a compelling and comprehensive grant application within the 30 day deadline.

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Charles Silvey