Text that describes plots: three variations from the standard arrangement

The most typical arrangement by which reports describe plots places the explanatory text immediately before the plot. Usually, the text does little more than replay the data in the plot. Here are three examples that diverge from the convention.

Our first example, from Ashurst GreekNPL 2017 [pg. 4], follows the standard pattern. Notably, however, the text also describes in the same paragraph the plot to the right of the one snipped.

Thompson Hine Innovation 2018 [pg. 3] varies the conventional pattern. It starts with a preamble before the plot, but inserts a short discussion to the right of the plot.

We see a third variation in Technology Law GDPR 2017 [pg. 8] . Here the report places some explanatory text above the plot and the remainder immediately below the plot.

No explanatory text for plots, or no plots!

A person might reasonably assume that if a law firm goes through the effort of conducting a data survey, it would want not only to produce a report with graphs, but also to interpret those graphs and make clear what insights they disclose. A pictures may be worth a thousand words, but words certainly enhance pictures. Surprisingly, therefore, several research reports dispense entirely with explanatory text and present only the naked plots.

After the introduction page, Squire Sanders Yorkshire 2013 associates no text with any of its 16 plots, although the plots show the question asked. Here are two examples [pg. 3].

Mayer Brown Privacy 2015 likewise provides no explanatory text for its plots. Six pages with 12 plots, and nothing but the question that spawned the data in the plot! Here is an example from the report [pg. 5]. As with the two images above, we reserve comment on the quality of the plot.

Berger Singerman SFlaRE 2016 has no text explanation or discussion for any of its plots, but it does replicate the data in a table to the right of the plot [pg. 6]. Some people find reading tables easier than reading graphs.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Freshfields Bruckhaus MACyber 2014 has no plots, not even tables. Readers of the report have to, well, read, to learn the data findings. Here is an example from the report.

Report elements (text, plots, other) as percentage of page space

The law firms in our collection of surveys make all kinds of decisions about the design of their reports. To start to understand the outcome of those decisions, we analyzed four reports. With each report we estimated the distribution of text, plots, and other design elements.

The four reports we chose were Eversheds, “21st Century law firm: Inheriting a new world” (2008); Hogan Lovells, “Risk and Return: Foreign Direct Investment and the Rule of Law” (2014); Norton Rose Fulbright, “Shipping” (2017); and White & Case, “Mining & Metals 2017: A tentative return to form” (2017). To be forthright about our criterion for selection, we picked four we had not written about before.

We decided to study the first five substantive pages of each report. Accordingly, we skipped the cover, executive summary, table of contents, and other introductory pages. For each of the next five pages we concentrated on the space available between the four margins (We ignored material in the margins on the left and right.). We estimated by eye what percentage of that space is filled with three elements: text (including space between lines), plots or tables of data, and other components such as pictures, embellishments, or pull-out quotes.

The eyeball estimation admits a degree of subjectivity, but we parsed all four reports consecutively so we applied a consistent standard. We are confident the findings are directionally correct even if other reviewers might estimate slightly different percentages.

For each of the four surveys, the next plot shows s a column for each of the three elements (Norton Shipping had no “Other” components so its column is missing). The columns indicate the average over the five pages reviewed of the percentage of space taken up by that element, for each report.  Together, they should total 100% for each report.  The first plot shows the elements side-by-side as columns.

The next plot shows the same data but stacks the elements into a single bar. People differ in their ease of interpreting the two plot formats.