A thousand words… at least

December 8, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Digital strategy, Multimedia, Storytelling, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

We hear a lot in the communications community about how much better it is to show than to tell. This is one of the underpinnings of effective story-telling (no pun or irony meant) and the dramatically increased use of multimedia features in a range of vehicles developed by foundations, advocacy groups, NGOs and the like.

As some recent blog posts show, in today’s Google-ized world, the concept is especially useful when it comes to deciphering the mounds of data that come our way in ever-greater quantities and at an ever-faster pace. In such cases, “data visualization” can quickly bring very complex collections of information into stark and compelling focus.

Harvard Business Publishing offers a nice overview piece on this, Swimming in Data, by management and technology consultant John Sviokla, former Harvard Business School professor of marketing, MIS and decision sciences.

Reminding us of the quote often attributed to Napoleon, “A good sketch is better than a long speech…,” Sviokla suggests that enhanced data visualization methods is a natural way to cope with information overload. He says such techniques are efficient, can help to illustrate the basic nature of a problem and, if really good, “help create a shared view of a situation and align folks on needed action.” That last point has particular resonance for those of us in strategic communications.

Sviokla cites a few examples of how this theory works in practice, as does a recent post in the Science Roll blog (Bertalan Meskó, founder of Webicina.com). Science Roll points to a spiffy visualization on “The Cost of Getting Sick” on the very cool Flowing Data site. This series of interactive polar pie charts uses data from GE and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to show what various conditions cost at different ages. Lead credit for the work goes to data designer Ben Fry, now the director of SEED visualization.

Of course, this latest generation of data visualization builds on years of work by others.  One of my personal heroes in the field is Nigel Holmes of Explanation Graphics (disclosure: Nigel did some work for me and my colleagues when I was at JAMA). Holmes is a former Time Magazine graphics director and was one of the most interesting and entertaining teachers at the now-dormant Stanford Publishing Course. And no discussion of how to effectively present data would be complete without a nod to visual communications guru Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale and author of seven books, including one of the field’s Bibles, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

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