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 

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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

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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

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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)

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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

Fig3A-2

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

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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: jlcaviglia-harris@salisbury.edu. 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

Dome

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 www.perceptualedge.com.

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.

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

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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.

Fostering Creative Climate Communications “Inside the Greenhouse”

A visit by Andy Revkin, who shared his perspectives on climate challenges and played music from his new album “A Very Fine Line,” inspired our students to create “climate karaoke” to communicate about climate change.

A visit by New York Times journalist Andy Revkin, who shared his perspectives on climate challenges and performed music from his new album “A Very Fine Line,” inspired our students to create “climate karaoke” to communicate about climate change.

Last June, we 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows were asked to sketch out a “destination postcard” envisioning ways we’d work to advance a project during our practice year. I decided that I really wanted to move forward on a collective project that my two co-conspirators at the University of Colorado-Boulder – Rebecca Safran (Associate Professor in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), and Beth Osnes (Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Theater and Dance) – and I have called “Inside the Greenhouse.”

Recently, journalist Alex Sobel Fitts wrote in Columbia Journalism Review that “‘just the facts’ haven’t been a good enough story…facts also have to be told compellingly. There are other ways of creating a narrative surrounding the facts of climate change that doesn’t distort, but is compelling.”

Welcome “Inside the Greenhouse.” Along with many collaborators and contributors, Beth, Rebecca, and I have constructed an experimental space where students can grab hold of the means of (creative) production to engage a range of audiences on climate-related topics. We work collectively to create constructive conditions where participants can analyze climate communication research, appraise effective methods for multimodal climate communication, and assemble artifacts through interactive theatre, film, fine art, performance, and television as well as new/social/digital media programming.

During the 2013-14 academic year, we held two sets of public and community events, hosting Constance Okollet and Ngozi Onuzo from “Climate Wise Women” in fall and Andy Revkin from New York Times Dot Earth and Pace University in spring. We also taught a two-course sequence: Rebecca taught “climate and film” focusing on personal narratives in the fall, and Beth and I co-taught a multi-modal creative climate communications course in the spring.

In our spring course, as our classroom erupted in applause after a set of impromptu “climate karaoke” performances, we gained further confirmation that we were tapping into powerful and productive energy for creative climate communication. There were forty juniors and seniors majoring in Environmental Studies, Geography, International Affairs and a few other disciplines. In 20 minutes from song assignment, each group composed climate-related lyrics for popular contemporary songs and classic hits and then performed them in front of the class.

As had been transpiring throughout the semester, habitually quiet and shy personalities mixed with the more outgoing ones, science-focused students mixed with those in the humanities, and groups happily harmonized and enthusiastically sang climate-themed karaoke ranging from versions of Katy Perry’s “California Girls” to the Isley Brothers’s classic “Shout.” Everyone stepped up and committed to the creative climate communications process.

Students engaged enthusiastically with each other to create "climate karaoke" in 20 minutes during class one day.

Students engaged in improv acting, role play and other activities throughout the semester to inspire creative climate communications and storytelling.

The karaoke session was one of many gratifying experiences that we’ve had in teaching these courses. In addition to reading and discussing social science and humanities literature on climate communications (“left brain” action), students got moving through improvisational acting, role play and other activities (“right brain” action). In small groups, they contributed to multimodal climate communications, such as:

Public art:

The "climate change board" on Pearl Street in Boulder

The “Climate Change Board” on Pearl Street in Boulder

James Petrie, Patty Bruder, MacKenzie Pope, Mike Elges and Conor Meyer created the “Climate Change Board,” placed it at two locations on campus and in downtown Boulder, and created a video with their reflections about the conversations it generated.

Performances: Gracie Nichols, Dylan Podel, Eddie Marovich and Alexis Levin created a radio program called “Dear Grandpa” (modeled after “This American Life”) where they read hypothetical letters written to their grandparents about climate change, focusing on intergenerational dimensions of the issue.

Board games:

Planet to Planet

Planet to Planet

 

Summer Hazlewood, Maxwell Fleming and Taylor Gifford created a climate-themed board game “Planet to Planet” (modeled after the popular game “Apples to Apples”) and built a website to support it.

Breakthrough

Breakthrough

Braeden Miguel, Chris Greenwood, Kyle Hockstad, Daniel Higgins, and Cameron Nelson created a board game called “Breakthrough” to provide an engaging new avenue for environmental thinking.

And videos:

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“Eat More Pine” performers

Dylan Podel, Eddie Marovich, Gracie Nichols, Alexis Levin, & David Ushakow produced a heavy metal music video called “Eat More Pine,” performed by singing and tree-destroying pine beetles.

You’ll find nearly three dozen examples of our students’ work from the past few years here,  including additional examples from our spring 2014 course.

Reflections:  Through ITG, we’ve sought to capture, value, interrogate and creatively communicate complex, multi-scale 21st century climate challenges. We’ve seen journeys in the classroom spill out into the “real world,” and the notion of “meeting requirements for the class” give way to students making the most of the classroom opportunities. We hope this work inspires and fosters sustained, productive, interdisciplinary creative climate communication collaborations and engages students and the public alike to make climate change meaningful. Our project illustrates ways in which many people are confronting the challenges of meeting others “where they are” while encouraging them to consider climate issues in new ways.

In getting to know 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows, as well as others in the Leopold network and beyond, I’ve learned about many fantastic projects underway around the country and the world. Do you have a project on creative climate communications that you’re involved in, or that you know about that you’d like to share? Please share a story about your work in these areas, and/or a link to a project you have found inspiring and useful.

Max Boykoff, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the Center for Science and Technology Policy, which is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder. For more about “Inside the Greenhouse” check here and follow @ITG_Boulder on Twitter. See Andy Revkin perform “Liberated Carbon” (from his new album “A Very Fine Line”) with the Shadow Puppet Theater during his visit to the University of Colorado-Boulder this spring.