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Communicating Science, Visually

5 tips for helping your audience build intuitive understanding

We’re ramping up for what I call “Lecture Series Season” here at Godat Design. It’s the most stressful chunk of our year, but the Lecture Series is the most rewarding project for me.

Every year, the University of Arizona College of Science invites five to seven lecturers to speak on topics from Global Climate Change, to Neuroscience, to Genomics to Quantum Physics.

We design the marketing and promotional materials for the series each year, but we also work side by side with the speakers as they craft their talks.

I’m a giant nerd, and I always have been. That’s the part of my brain which goes into overdrive on this project.

Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by science and nature documentaries. Like most people, I wound up with more questions than answers after watching them. There weren’t always subject matter experts around for me to bombard with questions either. My parents (an optical engineer and an interior designer) did their best to field them, but encouraged me to seek my own answers.

So if you’re starting to imagine the devilish smile on the face of a 10 year old kid who gets to ask “why”and “how” over and over again, you’re getting the picture.

What’s even better is I get to say I’m working while I do it.

Since the audience for the lecture series is almost entirely from the general public, we take care to make the information presented accessible, while maintaining scientific accuracy as best we can.

It’s a complicated balance between giving context and background for certain ideas, and providing graphical tools to illustrate what are often highly technical concepts.

To better assist our speakers we have to become short-term pseudo experts on whatever the topic happens to be in a given year. This lets us understand a little more about what they’re trying to say, and gives us a leg up making suggestions on how to say it differently.

Let me show you a few of the communications tools I use:

Say it two ways

It sounds mind-numbingly simple, but I’ve found people will only change a word or two when they restate their point. Sometimes it makes a huge difference if you can provide a completely different analogy for what you’re trying to explain. This comes up most often when I’m asking our speakers for clarification about what they want to communicate. I’ll state what I think they mean a couple of different ways, and let them tell me where I’ve gotten it wrong.

Use a chart or a diagram

Yup, this is another obvious one. There are certain things which make some diagrams more useful than others – like labelled axis, simplified units, or color coded information. The type of chart you use also makes a huge difference – there’s a great article over on FlowingData.com that describes how data tells its own story. Just because you could use a bar chart doesn’t mean you should. Perhaps a scatter plot can better clarify what you want to show.

Create (Visual) Continuity

This idea can be subtle, but since we have our hands on each presentation in the series there are little visual cues we try to include to remind our audience of concepts or ideas. For example, if a particular concept was color coded green in the first talk, we’ll pick up that same style for all subsequent lectures. When there are opportunities to re-use a chart or a graphic from a previous talk, we’ll try and do that as well. That way our audience has less work to do to re-learn the same ideas if they attend both talks.

Layout Conveys Meaning

Layouts aren’t an aesthetic choice alone. We use the layout of a slide to help convey meaning. For example if there are two contrasting ideas, we’ll put them on two halves of the slide. One will appear first, and the other appears later as it’s introduced by the speaker. The left/right relationship defines the two as distinct concepts better than if they appeared as running text. This relationship taps into a fundamental aspect of human perception. We see groups of items as being connected or related. You can read about some other cool ways you can use this idea, here.

Simplify

Simplification is the cornerstone of communication in my book. Your audience will never reach the same level of understanding of the topic as the speaker and that shouldn’t be your goal anyway. A key difference between written science communication and a speaker giving a talk is how the brain processes information. If you’re like me, you probably have a hard time reading something while someone is talking to you. So it would make sense not to have your audience do that during a talk. We try to keep the text on each slide to a minimum, only the bullet points, and let the speaker embellish and tell the story themselves. You’ve probably seen Apple use this tool to great effect in ads and keynote presentations.

There are tons more effective strategies you can use, and these are clearly not limited to the applications I described here.

Are there any tools or tricks you use? I’m always looking for new ideas.

Posted By

Danny Pagano

Posted On

September 28, 2017