Communicating 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:
- 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.
- Pathos – an appeal to emotions, values and beliefs. Word choice and emotional appeals can help persuade the audience.
- 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.
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:
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!