FEATURE22 March 2010

Getting your point across


If you can’t express your ideas in a way that makes other people understand and care about them, you might as well not have any ideas. Here are some of our favourite examples of researchers communicating well.


As journalists, we in the Research editorial team like to think we have decent communication skills. So the presentation and dissemination of research findings is, naturally, a topic of particular interest.

Being interesting is not necessarily a requirement for a job in research, but being articulate probably should be. After all, if you can’t express your ideas to others in a way they can understand and care about, you might as well not have any ideas.

So we thought we’d highlight a few examples of how communication can be done well – some from the research world, some not. Here are eight of our favourites:

1. Tell it with pictures
Earlier this month we spoke to David McCandless, the man behind informationisbeautiful.net. His infographics, including the Billion Dollar-O-Gram, demonstrate how design can bring data to life. Sometimes charts just complicate things – they’re a mass of data and labels and polygons and mess. Even if your audience can be bothered to try and make sense of your charts, you’ve moved on to the next slide before they get a chance. Meanwhile they weren’t paying attention to what you were saying.

McCandless demonstrates how it should be done. He keeps it simple, functional and funny. He has published an entire book of infographics called Information is Beautiful, and it lives up to its title. We’re hoping that he’ll eventually produce an infographic based on a reader survey, plotting informativeness of infographics against beauty of infographics, and thus determining the precise extent to which information really is, as he says, beautiful.

2. Get animated
Statistics professor Hans Rosling uses animations of longitudinal development data to crush myths about global inequality. He’s also a sword swallower, and has been known to combine the two skillsets in stats presentations, to illustrate that “the seemingly impossible is possible”. It’s probably best for most of us to leave the circus tricks to the professionals, but animation is a hugely powerful communication tool if deployed well.

Check out this animation explaining how the credit crunch happened for another top notch example.

“However long you were going to speak for, aim for half as long. However long you were going to make the report, halve it”

3. Keep it brief
However long you were going to speak for, aim for half as long. However long you were going to make the report, halve it. How ever many words you put on each slide, delete half of them. Then go back and see if there isn’t more you can cull.

This is important because we all tend to overestimate how much time our audiences have for us, but the process of editing is also a great way of distilling your own ideas in advance: make some cuts and you’ll start to see more clearly yourself which bits are really important. If you can’t boil down what you want to say to a single sentence, you probably haven’t thought it through well enough.

FreshMinds’ Louis Coiffait demonstrated the importance of brevity at a recent event. He stood up, showed one slide, told the audience: “Don’t get carried away with your presentation,” then promptly left the stage and sat down again. Gold star to Coiffait for walking the walk.

4. Show, don’t tell
OTX and MTV presented the findings of a major study of youth culture in 2007 as an exhibition in an art gallery in east London. Clients were invited and the show was also open to the general public. OTX’s Graham Saxton told Research at the time: “Researchers beat themselves up about adding value and getting findings in front of clients and yet most research is presented in the same old way, so we’re trying to get away from that.”

5. Dialogue, not monologue
On a related note, US agency Bluewater Learning prides itself on the fact its researchers take the role of “the guide on the side” rather than “the sage on the stage”. Instead of telling clients what to think, the argument goes, we should look for ways to lead them towards insight so that they can ‘discover’ it for themselves. What that means in practice is a debrief that resembles a workshop, with lots of group work and interaction. Some uninitiated clients roll their eyes at this sort of thing, but Bluewater has won the loyalty of those willing to give it a chance (anything, after all, is better than another lacklustre PowerPoint presentation).

It’s an approach that takes into account the different ways people absorb information – not many people benefit much from being talked at. If you give people the chance to learn in a way that works for them, the findings resonate and they will be much more willing and able to put them into practice.

6. Talk, don’t recite
Having said that, if you must talk at people, do it properly. There’s no harm in having a script for your presentation, but there is harm in reading from it. Don’t kid yourself that the audience don’t feel the difference. By all means bring your notes for reference, but if you care enough about what you have to say, you should be able to say it without reading from a sheet. Try this in advance.

Steve Jobs doesn’t read his presentations, he gives them. Niels Schillewaert of InSites Consulting does the same here, and it works.

7. Write a book
You have to be a special kind of geek to read reports or presentations in your spare time. But everyone reads books in their spare time. Kelley Styring of InsightFarm has realised this, and has published the results of some recent studies in illustrated book form. The first was In Your Purse, which looked inside the purses (handbags if you’re British) of dozens of American women. Out soon is the follow-up, In Your Car, for which Styring travelled the US with her family for a month, stopping along the way to conduct in-depth investigations of the insides of people’s cars.

The books are part research findings, part travelogue. Styring clearly has a research audience in mind, but her subject matter will appeal to anyone interested in cars or people, and her writing is engaging enough to keep non-specialists entertained. There are no charts and lots of anecdotes about what happened along the way, some relating to the drivers whose cars she ransacked, and some about her own escapades with her family. Not every research project lends itself to this sort of treatment, but Styring demonstrates how most researchers could do a much better job of making you want to read the findings. She’s taken photos. She’s had somebody design it for her. She has a personality that she’s not afraid to use. None of this is hard, it’s just that it doesn’t occur to most people.

8. Lay down some phat rhymes
Research-based rap is edging gradually towards the mainstream – the infamous Synovate Rap of 2007 has been followed in recent weeks by We are Youth from TNS’ youth division Tru, and Listen to Your Brain from Dr Neurofocus. The Synovate and TNS efforts are essentially PR copy put to music, with predictably toe-curling results, but the Neurofocus one aims a bit higher and manages to be both informative and catchy. Surprisingly, Dr Neurofocus is not a bad rapper, and has managed to rack up nearly 5,000 views on YouTube, a lot more than any of the firm’s other videos.

However, if research agencies keep producing rap videos, it’s only a short time before it stops being quirky and starts being irritating. So if you’re contemplating putting together a hip hop video about your latest project, we have two tips: 1 ) Don’t do it. 2 ) If you must do it, don’t begin before checking out the Large Hadron Rap. It’s a classic of the educational rap genre, in which a member of Cern’s communications team going by the name of Alpinekat explains the basics of particle physics and the workings of the Large Hadron Collider. She’s got nearly six million views on YouTube. Beat that.

Who are your heroes of research communication? Share them in the comments box below.

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