Persuasiveness in Visualisation: Easy as 1,2,3

AristotleCommunicating with data is an art, as well as a science. It’s possible to improve your skills by simply applying some techniques that have stood the test of time. Aristotle, one of the great philosophers, wrote about rhetoric, “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Today folks, we’re going to explore his studies and how it can help persuade people within our data visualisations for good (or evil).

In Book I, Chapter 2, of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he refers to three means of effecting persuasion: Ethos, and Pathos and Logos. The abridged definitions are:

  1. Ethos – a means of convincing through the credibility and trustworthiness of the persuader. Giving the impression that the persuader is someone worth listening to, is likeable and worthy of respect.
  2. Pathos – an appeal to emotions, values and beliefs. Word choice and emotional appeals can help persuade the audience.
  3. Logos – the mode of appealing to the audience’s sense of reason. In his studies, Aristotle indicates that this is the most important step in influencing others. Clear and concise arguments structured in a logical manner provide the basis for the audience to consider what makes sense to them.

So, how does this apply to data visualisation and storytelling?

Step 1: Ethos
Let’s explore the application of credibility and trustworthiness when presenting our visualisations. How can we give our viz audience the comfort that we know what we’re presenting, and not pulling a swifty?!

Reach out to your audience and give them a sense of your background. If you’re a blogger or have a Tableau Public account, have your “About Me” profile setup. When it comes to working life try to build relationships with your stakeholders outside of the presentation room – you’ll get to slowly build your credibility in each interaction. Sometimes we get landed in a room with new people, so try introducing yourself with a backstory “today we’re presenting the Sales dashboard, but before we get started here’s a little bit of background on me:

“I’ve been working with data for x years”
“I’m here to help you to get…”
And if possible, build some rapport by dropping in something slightly humorous

Not everyone is as inspired by data as we are, but we’re all inspired by people!  After your small backstory intro, then you can launch into discussion on your viz. Here’s the kicker: with Tableau and Alteryx you can show people your calculations and where the data comes from! Enter trustworthiness!  This also applies to Tableau Public. If you’ve posted up a viz, include footnotes of where you get your data from. Allow people to download your workbooks, so they can reverse engineer your viz and understand your calculations too.

The final recommendation to increase ethos, is to demonstrate that you’re thoughtful, fair and respectful of alternative points of view. This means listening and and taking on board constructive criticism and feedback. I loved Ben Jones’ recent blog about Building a Thriving Vizualisation Data Community where he describes seeking feedback, but also giving honest feedback with tact. He also recommends demonstrating humility and listening, which resonates with Aristotle’s theory of Ethos.

Step 2: Pathos
Progressing to a relatively simple mode of persuasion for vizzes: an emotive appeal. Using colour, typeface, descriptive text and titles can really change perspectives on what the data is actually saying.

Andy Cotgreave has put together a great video that quickly demonstrates how a few tweaks of a viz completely changes the message using the same data.

Iraq Viz Comparison

The viz on the left (original) is a famous one in our community: Simon Scarr’s  Iraq’s bloody toll. We’re hit by the imagery of dripping blood, with the red bars pointing down, and the title sets the context. In his demo, Andy swiftly tweaks the dashboard by flipping the chart around (so the bars point up), changing the colour from Red to Blue, and editing the title to “Iraq: Deaths on Decline” (viz pictured on the right).

Curiously with these two perspectives: they are both right. There were an incredible number of people who died during the wars, but we can see that the deaths have declined. The emotive descriptions, use of colour and viz style really do influence!

Aristotle believed that Pathos was the least effective means of persuasion, as people often tire of emotional appeals. Beware of over-using it in your toolset!

Step 3: Logos
Finally Aristotle’s favourite: Logos, the appeal to reason by way of logic. Journalists have historically favoured reporting using the Inverted Pyramid technique for over 150 years. Essentially they tell you the most important information up front, to the least important. So, how does this apply to ‘reporting’ stories with our data? There are three main points to consider:
• The real estate of the dashboard: Are you using it effectively, without clutter, driving clarity for your audience?
• Which viz helps people to understand the data? Can someone new look at your viz and come to the same conclusion without supporting text?
• Using your titles and descriptions to drive your message home

A fantastic resource for learning about communicating with visualisations is Cole Nussbaumer’s book: Storytelling with Data. Cole discusses using the Z-Pattern Layout, which is also popular in web design:

Z-Pattern Layout

Google it! There’s plenty of research that suggests people will follow the Z, particularly when there is less text cluttering the page. Place your most important (directive text) at the top left, and then work your way through the real estate with your viz – from left to right, back on the diagonal to left, and across again to right.

Selecting the right viz type for your story is important! So important, it’s the stuff of great studies. Jock Mackinlay’s keynote at data16 in London, took us on a wonderful journey of how his studies in the automation of visual design underpins the easy interface of Tableau’s “Show Me”.  My technique is to leverage the simplicity of Tableau and keep iterating until I find what speaks to me and the audience through constructive critique.

A while back I did a short course on Presentation Best Practice by McKinsey & Company. There’s a great blog here that distills it down into 10 key points – you can check them out, they’re all important! The one that’s always stuck with me is titles own the most valuable piece of real estate – use them wisely! Be directive e.g. “Net profits have increased by 25% YOY” instead of simply “Net Profit Growth” – this helps lead and guide your audience.

Put these tips together you can follow some simple logic: start at the top left with a strong directive title; follow the Z flow with visualisations that emphasise important points; don’t bury your main point somewhere down at the bottom right of the page; accent with directive text; Logos Bravos!

So there you have it!  We’ve journeyed back in the past, to help discover the future.  Next time bear in mind Aristotle’s modes of persuasion. My hope is that we can all use these techniques to our advantage, whilst retaining an ethical approach communicating insights.

Keep on Vizzing!
xoxo VizChic


Add yours
  1. 1
    Pooja Gandhi

    This is a fantastic post, Fi. Thanks for taking the time to write and share. I love how we can apply historical theories and learnings to our present situations in order to improve the outcomes of the future. It is pretty fascinating. After all, history is for a reason!

    Here are a few things that are important to me to build credibility for my work (in terms of when I am out giving a presentation to a live audience)

    Pre-plan before a big meeting or a presentation. Don’t just know about what you are presenting but also know and be aware of anything additional that your audience might be interested in. For meetings and presentations, I usually have a dedicated workbook to show and indicate other things that were not on the agenda. That helps the audience know that the speaker is way more prepared than what was expected of them. For me this has done 2 things: my audience knows I am not shooting in the dark and have fact based answers ready and second it builds instant trust.

    While getting my work ready, I also like to think that I am my own audience and ask questions to myself that might occur by others. This helps me get ready for the unknown and helps me build confidence to answer with ease simply because I was ready for it. This again builds credibility for my work because my audience is aware that I have done my homework and that they can trust me.

    Emotional connect is also important to me because superficiality is never going to retain your audiences’ interest. If at all it drives them away. Don’t do things just for the sake of it, this applies to everything. Have your heart in it because trust me, it shows. Have the passion to an extent that it shows in your eyes, in your work and in your voice. Smile a lot. It makes believing you easy for your audience.

    And lastly, come across as approachable. Just because it is a meeting don’t come across as something you are not. Our personalities is what makes us unique, retain that. Have a dedicated slide or words at the end of the event to let your audience know, that they can get in touch with you anytime for any feedback or questions.

    These are some of the things, not all inclusive that I follow depending on what the situation calls for. Adaptability is the way to life, so I adapt based on what’s required at certain times. Thanks for reading! 🙂

    • 2

      Hey Pooja,

      Thanks for taking the time out to contribute some supporting ideas 🙂 I really love the callout to put structure into your meetings and presentations – sometimes I get so busy it’s easy to skip it and try to talk on the fly. People are such creatures of habit, so if there is something new you’re talking about the structure really helps to allay their anxiety because they have a sense of what is happening. It’s a great idea to put yourself in the shoes of your audience, I’d never considered it as a tool to relieve nerves – awesome tip!

      Thanks again for taking the time out of your busy day to add your best tips and tricks. This is what I love about our community we love to share and help others. I can’t wait to meet you in Austin!


  2. 3
    Pooja Gandhi

    Just read this message! Cheers Fi! Glad you found them useful. I have never come across a community so vibrant in so many ways. Excited to meet you in Austin as well. I have heard from a few people, you are an awesome company 🙂

  3. 4
    Vlad Gutkovsky

    Great stuff! A trick we use to take advantage of the Z-pattern is to put the client logo at bottom-right. Or just get rid of it altogether, in the rare cases that a client is willing to put ego aside 🙂

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