Before and After: Applying “Communication Design” Rules

In my yearlong exploration of science communication, I focused on learning more about storytellingpresenting, and design.  Of all the changes that I have made as a result of these lessons, the most immediate impact has been in the way that I think about and visualize my message. The following before and after examples show just how easy it is to do this….

The most effective visuals are those that have a single focus. As Garr Reynolds points out in his book Presentation Zen Design, there are two simple ways to emphasize what is important in images, charts and graphs. The first is to use contrast by exploiting differences in color, shape, proximity, and size. The second is to use a declarative title. For example, “Deforestation Rates Peaked at 27% in 1995” quickly relays the meaning of a figure while the more common “Deforestation Rates over Time (1990-2010)” is more elusive.

Note that people will interpret your slides and figures first by reading the titles, then by looking at the shapes or images in the foreground, and lastly by focusing on details like the legends, axes title and any other extraneous information. You want to design your images to complement this visual flow.

The following 3 “before and after” examples apply these and other concepts from my previous blog to old presentations that I have given and figures that I have improved on for publication. I created the figures in Stata, but they can be easily reproduced in software as simple as Excel, or in other programs like R, with a few additional lines of code.

Figure 1A – Slide with Photos of Deforestation 









The slide above is from an old presentation. Notice that the three photos create clutter because they are small and do not provide a uniform theme. The title is descriptive, not informative.

Figure 1B – Revised Slide with Single Focus









In this revised slide the clutter is removed, the image is full bleed (see Akash Karia’s book for more examples), and the title is included within the photo. I have increased the blank area of the photo (where the title is located) by matching the background color to the sky. The image has been cropped to fit the space, making sure to maintain the asymmetry (the house and the cow are off-center).

Figure 2A: Deforestation over Time for the Original Control and Treatment Groups, 1990-2009









This second example is a time-series line graph. It is intended to display the increase in deforestation over time for a control and a treatment group. The colors and legend are the defaults in Stata.

Figure 2B:  Deforestation on Farms of the Original Control and Treatment Groups (Mean Hectares by year, 1990-2009)










The revised figure is a simpler, cleaner version of the prior. Note that I changed the background color to white; used a warm color  (i.e., one from the red, orange and yellow hues) to highlight the treatment group (because these colors pop out rather than blend in with the background; see Reynolds); and have created a title that is informative. In addition (see Schwabish), the y-axis title is moved to the subtitle and the legend removed. The y-axis tick mark labels are rotated to be horizontal (and easier to read), and the mean lot size is added to provide a benchmark. The result of these edits is that the differences between the control and treated groups are quickly evident.

Figure 3A: Table of Associations Used in Study of Social Networks


This final example shows one way to translate tables into figures for presentation. The table above includes information about household participation in 10 different farming associations. While the information is relevant to the study and appropriate for inclusion in our paper, this is too much information to display in a presentation.

Figure 3B: Household Participation (Percent) in 3 Most Popular Associations over Time











Figure 3B provides one alternative to the Figure 3A above. It displays the participation rate in the top 3 associations. Note that the bars are listed horizontally to better capture trends over time (as you move downward) and that the totals are placed within the bars instead of outside to better balance the image. The y-axis label is not included because this information is in the title.

The above before and after examples are just three of the endless ways in which you can improve upon your visuals. If you want to learn more, one of the simplest ways is to open your eyes to the lessons that are all around you in advertisements, on billboards, and on your smart phone. Keep in mind that you can achieve simplicity in design with the three fundamental principles: “restrain, reduce, and emphasize.”

Do you have any old slides or images that you’d like to update with these design tips in mind? If so, note a comment below and submit them to me: I can include these on a future blog with additional tips or just get back to you personally.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

5 Essential Elements of Impactful Design


Design is the language of the eye

Design can make the difference between an impactful message and a forgotten claim. Design is not decoration, but rather plays a functional and organizational role in delivering a message. As David McCandless points out in his TED talk “The Beauty of Data Visualization,” design is the language of the eye. Given this potential, it is surprising how often the opportunities to create this impact are lost in academic presentations and figures in publications.

My mother exposed me to design when I was a child with a color wheel, tutoring me on the differences between hue, tint, and the importance of contrast… and painting our house a new color almost every year. She taught me calligraphy when I was 10, creating the opportunity to learn about font, serif, and the flow of text. This outlook helped me to see the world differently, but I can’t say it impacted my career until recently. It was hard to see how design could be applied to communication when the recipe for presentations at academic conferences is set (and veering from this can have negative consequences). This changed after I stumbled across Jon Swabish‘s article “An Economist’s Guide to Visualizing Data.” Combining this with the long list of resources I had only just begun to review opened me up to the profound impact of design in communication.

To make images more impactful, it is important to understand the golden rules of design.  First, one of the simplest ways to make a composition visually appealing is to work in odd numbers. One, three and five are more interesting than two, four, or six. This is because even numbers allow the brain to group more easily, making them less memorable and appealing than their odd cousins. Designers also use the rule of thirds to guide placement (see Ang Tian Teck’s Sticky Presentations for a great visual on this concept). In this context, the subject is located along one of the 3 x 3 grid intersects of the image.

These rules are just the start. I have found the following elements of impactful design to be most useful in communicating research findings:

1. Test Your Design Knowledge. Learn what you know (and don’t know) about design solutions by testing your knowledge with the “Graph Design IQ Test” on the Perceptual Edge Web site

2. Keep It Simple. Whether you’re preparing slides for a presentation or a figure for an article, you want to reduce clutter and focus on one point. Forget about slide limits. They are free. Use as many as you need (keeping to only one point per slide). In figures emphasize the main point with color and focus. Delete extraneous information and detail. Embrace white space. This creates natural contrast, allows the brain to “breathe” and provides focus where you want it.

3. Make It Big. Your audience should be able to read your text from the back of the room during a presentation. Your reader should be able to understand your figures without squinting. As Nancy Duarte notes in Resonate, your slides should have more in common with billboards or road signs than the images you see elsewhere. In other words, they should be understood quickly and seen from great distances. To gain a perspective on the right size, Garr Reynolds suggests in his book Presentation Zen Design that you view your slides in the slide-sorter. If you can’t understand or read them in this view, your text or image is probably too small for those in the back of the room.

4. Know Your Fonts. Most experts in design recommend the use of one, or at most two, different fonts in a presentation. As Akash Karia recommends (How to Design TED Worthy Presentation Slides), you should use size (and not various fonts) to depict importance and create emphasis.  Serif fonts aid readability for longer sections of text because the serifs (or the end strokes) lead your eye from one word to the next. On the other hand, sans serif fonts are often preferred for figures and slides since the lack of end strokes makes each individual letter easier to distinguish.

5. Seek Asymmetrical Balance. Asymmetrical balance is achieved when both sides of an image are not identical, yet appear to have the same visual weight. On the other hand, symmetrical (or formal) balance is achieved by creating the reverse of a design on the opposite side of a vertical or horizontal axis. While symmetry achieves balance through repetition, asymmetry achieves balance through contrast. Similar to the use of odds and the rule of threes, asymmetrical balance results in beautiful and impactful images because of the work the brain has to perform to recognize the visual weight.

In my next blog I’ll share examples using these essential elements. What helps you most to design impactful presentations and figures? Leave a comment.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) see her additional entries on storytelling and presenting and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

Fellows, Call Home!

green_phoneLast Monday evening at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting, after a full day of sessions about the ecology of mountains, oceans, and the zones in between, about 80 scientists gathered at a mixer held by the Ecology Society of America Policy Section, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Leopold Leadership Program.

As often happens when scientists who are passionate about linking their knowledge to action get together, the room filled up quickly, and people lingered to talk well beyond the scheduled end at 8pm. A dozen Leopold fellows were there, including Sharon Collinge, vice president of public affairs for ESA, and Karen Holl, the main organizer of the event.

Karen got the idea for the mixer from conversations with other fellows during the 2012 All-Cohort Reunion. “We talked a great deal about the importance of the Leopold network,” she said. “The mixer allowed fellows to not only interact with one another, but also to share ideas and catch up with scientists involved with the ESA Policy Section and the Union of Concerned Scientists who are similarly committed to using science to inform policy.”

In addition to catching up with each other, attendees heard the latest from the three organizational hosts. Alan Townsend, co-director of the Leopold program, spoke briefly about changes in direction following our 2011 strategic plan. He noted the shift in focus from science communication to leadership development designed to support fellows in linking their knowledge to action. This direction, which comes out of fellows’ feedback, gives us agility in addressing emerging needs at the interface of science and action. It also relies on fellows acting as a network — by contributing to our knowledge base, sharing ideas, and taking on new roles in the program.

Alan also touched on the challenging funding situation that we face after June 2016. “We are actively seeking a sustainable funding model and are optimistic that we’ll find it,” he said. “But if we don’t, there’s a real possibility that this program will cease to exist.”

He described a few simple things fellows can do to help sustain the program:

1. Call Home. If you’re involved in an initiative that links your science to action – or if the focus of your research is changing as a result of your Leopold experience – call or email us about it. Your stories help us share the impact of the Leopold program with our funders and build our understanding of what’s needed to help researchers integrate their science into practice.

2. Send a photo with a caption for this blog. Share a highlight from your experience working with an NGO, the private sector, or a government agency to catalyze change.

3. Participate in the Leopold network. Tell us about what’s working and where you see emerging needs to help scientists effectively integrate their science into practice. Make use of the network when you’re undertaking a new initiative. We can help you find others who share your vision.

What do you want to know about the work of the Leopold Leadership Program? Leave your question in the comment section.

Pam Sturner is the executive director of the Leopold Leadership Program.

Amplifying My Message: A Kick-Assish Presentation in Brazil

After my presentation at a conference in Brazil, students posed with me for a group photo

After my presentation at a conference in Brazil, students posed with me for a group photo

My first test of the presentation skills I’ve been exploring came after an invitation by EMBRAPA (the Brazilian equivalent of the US Department of Agriculture) to present work on the farming practices of small-scale Amazonian farmers. The invitation came because EMBRAPA’s annual conference was being held in the state I have been working in for the last 15+ years.

To move my presentation lessons into practice, I prepared earlier than I had for similar talks in the past, practiced the talk (although the last run-through was on the shuttle over to the conference site), and aimed to be of service to my audience.

My assigned presentation time was 8:00 a.m. on the second morning — a full day after I arrived. This allowed me to scope out the auditorium, get to know the audience, and understand their expectations. The stage was intimidating: an open auditorium that easily seated 750 people. And, to my surprise, upon my arrival I learned that the conference was to be held in Portuguese! (After receiving the program in English, I assumed this would be the conference language). Translators were on site providing real-time translation, but I noticed this was not as effective as speaking in Portuguese: the audience was less attentive. Noting this, I decided to add a few phrases and slides in Portuguese (I speak the language, but not well enough to change the presentation overnight), pose a question for my audience, and, using the concepts of design and storytelling outlined by Nancy Duarte, rely on slides that were visually appealing and image-driven.

Lucky for me the continental breakfast lasted a bit longer than 8:00 am.  Once the program got started, I had a pretty full auditorium.  When I got on stage I was noticeably not nervous… this was not the norm. As the stakes rose in my career and my audiences grew, I went back to having visible nerves, a cracking voice, and butterflies that could just swallow you up. But this time was different. For one, I had practiced the talk numerous times. On other occasions, time constraints had often left me making final edits only minutes before I spoke.

The curve ball this time was language. I found it so funny to be in a room where only 10 percent of the people could understand what I was saying. I couldn’t stop smiling. I decided to pose a question to capture their attention. I had framed my presentation to have 3 objectives that I spoke in Portuguese (I presented the remainder of my talk in English). One of these was to determine if my work was of interest to the audience. I wanted to know this because my team and I were planning to come back in a year and hoped to involve local students in our work.

So, was the presentation a success? The audience was attentive. I noticed that all the faces as far back as I could see were clearly focused on me and my slides as I told a story to motivate my research, I got a few laughs (when they were supposed to happen), and the feedback afterwards was positive.  But participant feedback is not always useful in determining success. As Berkun points out, saying “great job” to a presenter in most cases means little more than “I saw your talk.”  (Ten points for Leopold training: receiving constructive feedback that you can later incorporate into improvement is hard to come by).

That said, I did feel like a rock star with a line of students waiting to meet me to exchange email addresses, a list of reporters pulling me away for interviewers in between these meetings, and requests for group photos with interested students (see above). Some of this was cultural – all the presenters were asked for interviews after their talks. I was the most sought-out English speaking presenter simply because I was the only one to speak Portuguese.

What did I learn? Not using a pointer is harder than I realized. Absolutely everyone who writes on public speaking states that you should never use laser pointers. However, even though my slides were not text-heavy (and many only included images), it was impossible not to use the pointer and keep my audience on target (they were typically a half or full sentence behind me, listening to the real-time translation). An easy fix for this would be a greater usage of animation. Having individual words and ideas appear as you are talking improves flow and eliminates the need for pointers… but then timing like that requires A LOT of practice.

What have you done when you’ve gotten a curve ball in preparing for a presentation? Share your story below!

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

5 Steps to a Kick-Ass Presentation


Photo: iStock Photos

In my yearlong exploration of science communication, I focused on learning more about communication in the forms of: storytelling, presenting, and design. Here I focus on the skills I have found to be useful in creating impactful presentations.

Great presentations are to the point, easy to follow, and contain purposeful elements that subvert the curse of knowledge. They are engaging… make you want to listen. As Nancy Duarte points out in the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, “People don’t fall asleep during conversations but they do during presentations.” This is because many presentations are not conversational. Skilled presenters attend to both style and substance and are able to intertwine these aspects to motivate, surprise, and inform the audience. There’s a lot more to presenting and communicating research findings than we are taught in graduate school.

Whether your audience is a group of academics, policy makers, or the general public, it is likely that they do not know your area of research as well as you do and will need context to better understand your message. Like the whistlers of tunes that others cannot guess in the Heath brothersMade to Stick, it’s hard to not to know what we know, but with thought, experience, and planning this cognitive bias can be overcome.

Also note that nerves are unlikely to have a negative impact on your talk. As Chris Anderson explains in “How to Give a Killer Presentation,” “nerves are not a disaster.” Similarly, Scott Berkun points out in Confessions of a Public Speaker that audiences are forgiving and want the speaker to do well. Take advantage of this, expect to be nervous if the stakes are high, but use this energy to motivate and focus your efforts already put forward to develop your kick-ass presentation:

1. Frame Your Ideas. Your talk should have a narrative structure: a beginning, middle, and an end.  The “and, but, therefore” format highlighted by Randy Olson in “Science Communication: Narratively Speaking” and by Erika McPhee-Shaw on this blog creates a shape that conveys tension and resolution.

2. Know Your Audience. How do you know if you really know your audience? Berkun offers advice on how to draw this conclusion: find out why your audience is at the event, what their needs are, and what they can expect to take from your talk. Knowing your audience is humbling. It means putting their interests first and presenting material they can use one day. Not knowing your audience can make your talk memorable for reasons that have nothing to do with your message.

3. Tell Stories. Stories inspire, help you to connect with your audience, and make your message memorable. As Annette Simmons writes in The Story Factor, “You can entice, inspire, cajole, stimulate, or fascinate but you cannot make anyone listen to anything. Embracing this fact up front lets us focus on what we can do.” We can create interest and curiosity and catch and hold someone’s attention with story. As the Heath brothers note, “Stories can almost single-handedly defeat the curse of knowledge.” For more on how to do this, read my previous posts on storytelling tipspractice, and prompts.

4. Organize, Shape, and Structure Your Content. According to Duarte, when creating your slides you want to think like a designer. Your slides should be clear of clutter, include ample amounts of white space, and contain only one idea per slide. Your slides should be of uniform style, creating a visual unity that makes your message feel cohesive. Individually, they should be of a form that people can “get” in 3 seconds. When structuring your content, make sure your audience knows your plan. In your outline avoid the categories of “introduction,” “results” and others you’d see in a refereed paper. Finally, build (simple) animation into your talk. Your audience will either listen to you speak or read your slides. Animation allows you to control your pace and keeps the audience on task.

5. Practice!!! In his book How to Deliver a TED Talk Jeremey Donovan points out that none of the hundreds of great TED speakers that he interviewed were “natural speakers.” They all practiced more than anyone else, and as Garr Reynolds emphasizes in The Naked Presenter, they were persistent.  You want to practice out loud, and, as uncomfortable as this might be, in front of a mirror or on videotape. Listen for filler words like “um,” “yes,” or others you repeat often to bridge sentences and ideas.  Donvan recommends the “burst-and-pause” method to rid your speech of these words.  Here the pauses replace filler words and give the audience time to absorb your meaning.

Finally, good presentations don’t provide commentary: don’t tell the audience why you’re doing something, why you haven’t prepared or what you should have done. This distracts from your message and more importantly takes away valuable seconds or minutes that you could have used in a more valuable way.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how these skills served me when I gave a talk in Brazil — and deal with a big, last-minute surprise.

How you do prepare for presentations? Leave a comment with your best tip!

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.