Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Storytelling using scientific data

Data is at the heart of the scientific discipline. Turning quantitative information into visual storytelling is done everyday by newspapers. We can do the same for our scientific presentations. Here is an example.

Last week I was reading in the New York Times the story about GE and how they avoid paying taxes.  Shocking, I know, but politics aside, the interesting fact about the story was the complementary article using visualization of data, also known as infographics. It is visual storytelling at its best: A script, words, and pictures (or in this case graphs). See below a screenshot.

Now,  this is  engaging and compiling because of the visual evidence of the graphs and overall Gestalt.  Each of these panels makes for great  a slide. Sure the panel in the middle-right would need some adjustments because of the quantity of the text, but that is a minor detail. I'm sure you know where I'm going. These infographics complement the main text-based article, just as slides complement a talk.  

Allow me to go back to the idea of words and pictures.  Biology professor Zen Faulkes has a great scientific blog, where he covers the presentation talk issue. I highly recommend it. It was reading this blog what I found the work of Scott McCloud, a comic writer. Scott has at least two non-fiction books on the arts of comic, and visual storytelling. We usually associate comics  and animated film with children and fantasy stories, but this is not always the case. Consider Slavar (before continuing reading click here to see for information on Slavar) an animated documentary.  As you can see this is not for children. I had the chance to ask the director why did she go animated. I thought the topic was too serious to be presente in that way. Her answer surprised me. It was precisely because the topic was so serious, so brutal that she thought the best way to present it was through animation.    

Learning more about comics (and for that matter documentaries) is a great way to move from bullet lists to visual storytelling. Actually, the list of suggested reading from presentation guru Nancy Duarte is full of on references on storytelling. In scientific presentations, the visual on visual storytelling can naturally come from the data.  Just like the infographics on the story of GE:

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