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"What is to be sought in designs for the display of information is the clear portrayal of complexity. Not the complication of the simple; rather the task of the designer is to give visual access to the subtle and the difficult – that is the revelation of the complex."
- from Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

You’ve completed an important research project and have been asked by your dean to prepare a presentation for a potential funder. How do you use data points and infographics in ways that make your communications more compelling? Perhaps you insert an extra statistic on the aging population to add context to your message. But how many data points are enough and which are the most compelling?

It’s well known that people look at pictures before they read text. What is less well known, though, is how to actually create meaningful visual images. Despite years of experience compiling data and preparing graphs and tables for scientific presentations, you may have never had formal training in information graphics. This section will help you learn how and when to use data points on aging and geriatrics and how to take those data points and create more visually compelling infographics.

 

How many data points are enough?
What are the most compelling data points to use?
What is the best way to present the data point?
More Tips for Communicating Data Effectively
Getting Started
Make Your Graphics Communicate


Did you know? Florence Nightingale is remembered as the mother of nursing, but she is also known for using innovative visual diagrams, called “Coxcombs” to communicate her message. By using these graphic images in her landmark text, Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army, she persuaded her audience that far more deaths were attributable to non-battle causes than to battle related causes and made her case for better standards in nursing.

How many data points are enough?

If you have taken time to develop your message, then you know the heart of your presentation will focus on a few key points. So, how many data points or infographics do you need to use? The easy answer is, “just enough to support each key point in your message.” The actual number will depend on your audience.

For example, if you are speaking to a skeptical group of scientists, you may have to build your case with a lot of data points or infographics describing your research methodology, results, and conclusions. But for a general audience, use the minimum amount of research data that still maintains your credibility.

Less can also be more. If you use a fewer number of more compelling data points rather than a larger number of weaker data points, your audience will be more likely to remember your message.

What are the most compelling data points to use?

Knowing which data points to use to communicate your message is difficult to master. Experience and intuition will guide you, but some of the following tips may help:

  • Take a step back and get perspective. Think about where your research fits into the larger scheme. Which data points on aging or geriatrics will connect your research to the bigger picture (e.g., what people might read in Time magazine on the aging of our nation)?
  • We are conditioned to think that “newer” is “better,” but that is not always the case. Your academic peers are interested in learning about your most recent research breakthroughs on the molecular basis of bone fractures in osteoporosis, but a general audience may connect more with data that tells the most interesting story about the development of this research or how likely they are to suffer a fracture.
  • Try out one or two data points and see which one is best. A colleague or trusted advisor or even a friend or significant other outside your professional sphere can be a great sounding board if you are uncertain which data point to use.

Consider, too, whether your purpose in adding data points is to add context to your message, educate the audience about a complex problem, or persuade them to your point of view. 

  • Adding context. Your research data set contains measurements or statistics, but to convey information you need to add context. For example, you might say that your research shows 1 million elderly people will need the care of aging specialists. But that number is of limited value until you put it into context and show that aging specialists are currently available to care for only 100,000 elderly.
  • Educating. If your audience is not familiar with the issue, if the problem is complex, or if there is not a large, single defining issue, you may need to use data points to educate. Fact sheets, handouts, or brochures may be the best way to communicate large amounts of background data.
  • Persuading. Using data points to show contrasts or cause and effect can help you persuade an audience to accept your point of view. Cost projections are good motivators for some. A crisis-type statistic is a classic negative form of motivation. Highlighting contrasts (good vs. bad, costly vs. inexpensive) in your infographics can also help to persuade. And don’t forget that data is most effective when combined with dynamic images and compelling stories that connect emotionally with your audience.

What is the best way to present the data point?

You have reviewed your research and identified the one most compelling, memorable point that communicates your message. How do you deliver the message? It’s well known that people will look at a graph or picture before they read the words. A graph or chart can also highlight differences and relationships in your message in a more efficient way than text.

Consider the following example: on the left is a typical text based PowerPoint slide and on the right is a graphic image of the same information.

 
The PowerPoint text slide conveys a weaker message because all the text is presented in a traditional bullet list suggesting that each fact is of equal importance. The graphic image communicates a much more powerful statement because of its clear and concise message and visual impact.

More Tips for Communicating Data Effectively

Your goal in using information graphics should be to move from simply sharing your data with your audience to using data to communicate your message. If you are a social scientist whose work is more qualitative than quantitative, then you may find the tips in getting started useful. If you are a seasoned researcher whose files are brimming with graphs and data tables, some of the techniques in make your graphics communicate may pique your interest. Regardless of your familiarity with creating visual data displays, though, the recommendations for organizing and planning in the getting started section will make your message stronger. The resources at the end of this section take you to new ideas, useful tips, and sources of more in-depth information.

Getting Started

Organize and Plan
 

Collecting data can be easy, but organizing and making the best use of it can be hard. Compile your available information and make a plan for presenting your data points and information graphics. Determine which parts of your message could be enhanced by adding a graphic. Next, make a sketch of each graphic and write down the message you want to convey from that image.

Think about what motivates your audience. Then, add details to your information graphics that are important to them. Financial statistics on aging and elderly help put a message into context for audiences concerned about dollars and cents. A map makes more of an impact on an audience concerned with the geographic scale of a problem. Instead of using words to describe your scientific methods, try using one diagram summarizing your technique or a photographic image of your sophisticated laboratory equipment.


Consider your budget and expertise
 

Ideally, information graphics are tailored for each presentation and each type of audience. However, time and budget constraints are realities that need to be considered when you are planning the number and type of infographics for your presentation.

Preparing a chart or graph in Excel may be as much as you can do. For others, experimenting with data layers, colors, and scale factors in a complex chart is second nature. Unless your background is in graphic design and illustration, many of the most beautifully complex infographics will be out of reach without getting outside help.

Charts and graphs created from Excel or Word or graphing software available in your laboratory are relatively inexpensive to produce. Weigh the benefit of obtaining one professionally prepared data-rich information graphic to the ease of using a smattering of simplistic images created by PowerPoint or your word processing software. Although a professionally prepared infographic can be costly, you may only need to use one image to get the impact you’re looking for. Finally, consider your medium. Digital screens often lack the resolution needed to show data rich, layered images. A conventional slide, poster, or overhead may be more effective.


Select the type of infographic based on the message
 

Displaying rows of raw numbers is the simplest way to present information, but it may not communicate your message to the audience. Maps, charts, tables, graphs, and drawings all convey information, but some will tell your story better than others. How do you decide which to use? First, identify the type of comparison you want to make. For example, if you want to show a correlation or the relationship between two things then a bar graph may be best. A column or line graph may be best if you are trying to show a change over time. Many Eyes, a graphing tool supported by the CUE research arm of IBM, shows pictures of common types of graphs, explains when they are useful, and allows you to try them out with your data set.

Make your Graphics Communicate

Personal computers revolutionized our ability to use information graphics, but the principles first articulated by Edward Tufte in the late 1970s still set the standards of excellence for information design. Contrary to popular advice that scientists should use simplistic graphic images, Tufte advocates that information graphics should show diverse and bountiful detail, with layers of data and meaning.

In Tufte’s view, a good infographic designer assumes that the audience is intelligent and that clarity and simplicity in design are the opposite of simple mindedness. Tufte’s common sense principles for data design include: show the data in its full complexity and let viewers make their own discoveries; highlight important differences; remove unnecessary ink; reveal what is complex; above all else, show the data; and to clarify, add detail. A rich display of visual examples and essays that explain the principles of information design are found on Tufte’s website. While detailed techniques for enhancing your information graphics abound, on-line sources include Tufte’s and those of Stephen Few, whose specialty is information graphics for the business sector. Here are some tips for you to try in your next presentation.

  • Eliminate “chartjunk” (a term coined by Tufte), decorative elements that provide no data and can confuse the viewer about your message. Technology allows you to add sound, scanned images, and video clips to your information graphics, but that does not mean that you should. Remove unnecessary ink that does not convey data or aid in its interpretation.
  • Develop a consistent and distinctive look to your information graphics. Not only will you convey a more professional image, your graphics will have more impact. When the chart colors, type set, or layout are constantly changing in your presentation, you will take the focus away from your message because the audience will be thinking about how to process the change in format rather than your message.
  • Present your data in a way that lets it tell its story. If you are making a comparison between two images, put the information side by side within eye span, not on different slides. If you refer to a graphic with your text, keep them together within eye span.
  • Make sure your infographics are legible. Compare your graphics with standard specifications and recommendations for color, scale, font type, and font size.
  • Use meaningful titles. Your title should always be an action statement that communicates the message of the graphic. For example, the “Elderly housing demands outpace supply in the Southwest” is an appropriate title for a map showing where there are shortages in elderly housing.

Resources

On-line portfolios of ideas and information
 

Data Visualization. An on-line gallery of good and bad infographics.

Many Eyes. Part of an IBM research group whose website allows you to upload data and experiment with different plots in an interactive format.

Perceptual Edge. This website by Stephen Few has a collection of articles on information graphics. His examples of bad infographics with illustrations on how to improve them are enlightening. Although his work is geared toward the business sector, the library on his website contains practical advice, tools and techniques on using graphs to communicate.

The Work of Edward Tufte and Graphic Press. A website by the world’s leading information graphics specialist, Edward Tufte. The Ask E.T. forum contains articles and advice on the art of creating information in graphics.


Books for further reading
 

Few, Stephen. (2004). Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten. Analytics Press.  Basic information and practical examples for improving graphs and charts. Oriented to Excel type graphs and charts used in a business setting.

Tufte, Edward R. (2001). The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press. Theory and practice in the design of data graphics.

Harris, Robert L. (2000). Information Graphics: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference. Oxford University press.  A comprehensive catalog of ideas and a guide for selecting the best way to display information in a graphic form.

Tufte, Edward R. (1990). Envisioning Information.  Graphics Press.


 
   
 
   
   
   
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