“Your Graphic Caught My Attention”

US Energy Map
In my recent article on Adding Meaning and Value to Information, I summarized the processes, ‘end-products’ and tools that we use to understand, to derive meaning from information. A lot of the end-products and tools mentioned in that article are visualizations, organizations of information into tableaux. Such visualizations, like the extraordinary one above from Lawrence Livermore National Lab that effectively captures forty pages of data on a single page, not only add meaning and help us understand, they are useful for capturing and holding our attention (long enough to understand) in the first place.

Here’s a very subjective chart showing 25 methods of attracting attention to written material, how successful, on average, these methods are at grabbing (“eyeballs”) and holding (“stickiness”) our attention, and how much, on average, these methods actually add to reader comprehension:
Attention vs Meaning Added
This chart is a (mediocre) example of the consultant’s classic ‘2×2’ chart — showing the correlation (or lack thereof) between two variables. What it shows is that what gets our attention is not necessarily what is most meaningful to us, or useful to us in our comprehension or learning. In business there is a great passion for benchmarks, for example (“an efficient business should turn over its receivables at least x times per year; Wal-Mart manages a standard-setting y times”) and their publication therefore often attracts a lot of attention. But benchmarks are meaningless without context, and from personal experience I’ve learned not to put much stake in them. At the other extreme, single frame presentations (massive art-gallery-style graphics that explain an entire concept sequentially around the walls of a room), ecolanguage, and other animated visualizations can convey a vast amount of information and meaning, but their complexity is initially intimidating and off-putting to many people. Likewise, one can learn a great deal from wikis, which aggregate the collective wisdom of many participants, but they are (generally) visually ugly, not the kind of thing that grabs your attention.

So what is it about the media and techniques at the right end of the chart above that grabs our attention, even when they may not have much to say? They say brevity is the soul of wit, and what characterizes the attention-getters most, I think, is their conciseness. Even the energy chart at the top of this post, while it takes some effort to absorb, is concise compared to the mind-numbing and un-navigable forty pages of tables it effectively replaces. We are attracted to information that is simple, memorable and easy to absorb. That makes us suckers, alas, for oversimplifications, a weakness that politicians and corporate marketers exploit well, and which the mainstream media pander to.

We are likewise attracted to information that engages us interactively in its interpretation and use. When we see tables of survey results we compare where we stand versus the respondents in the survey. We print out the checklists so we can check off each box later. We take self-quizzes and participate in (well-designed and interesting) polls and surveys, even the most inane ones — it’s fun, and it’s almost as if we can’t help ourselves. We bookmark top 10 lists and memorize and forward on to others clever, pithy quotes, because they’re memorable and make us sound witty and profound by association.

Crafting visualizations and other reorganizations and syntheses of information in such a way that they are both attractive and meaningful takes a rare talent, and it is more an art than a science. The energy chart at the top of this article, or the famous Charles Menard graphic depicting Napoleon’s losses on his march to Russia, are works of extraordinary thought, skill and imagination. There is no course that teaches you how to invent such brilliant, compelling and meaningful representations of mounds of tedious data. There should be, however. These are true masterpieces.

Sometimes a representation of information can be compelling because it resonates with the worldviews, the ways of perceiving and understanding, of others. The following systems thinking graphic of mine, showing the vicious cycle of depression, has popped up all over the Internet since I posted it a couple of years ago:
Senge’s systems thinking diagrams are one of the most powerful means of showing causality, correlation and information relationships. We are innately programmed to study, and to want to understand, causal relationships — that is how we and all creatures ‘solve’ problems. So any technique that allows us to capture and convey, simply and intuitively, such relationships is bound to be powerful and appealing. We all need to learn, and schools need to teach, systems thinking, mindmapping and other easily-learnable visualization techniques, and to encourage and employ those rare imaginative, creative, artistic people who have the knack for visualizing more complicated information and relationships.

But just as we are prone to oversimplifying complex information, we need to take care not to try to apply systems thinking, mindmapping and other techniques where they are not appropriate. Among the features of complex systems are the impossibility of knowing all the variables, the absence of simple causal relationships, and the inability of predicting outcomes in such systems. A systems thinking diagram of any social or ecological system (e.g. one that purported to show ‘the solutions’ to global poverty) would necessarily be incomplete and misleading, a dangerous oversimplification that would inevitably lead to ineffective or even dysfunctional decisions and actions. Unfortunately, while our intuition and subconscious (if we listen to them and trust them) are pretty good tools for dealing with complex system problems and challenges, I know of no visualization or similar tool that is helpful in such situations. The closest thing I know of to a shareable, social tool that helps us address complex situations is narrative, the detailed, context-rich stories that indigenous peoples (and the rest of us, if we’re wise, and if we have the discipline to listen) tell each other. Open Space and other methodologies for grappling with ‘wicked’ problems depend significantly on story-telling as a means of knowledge transfer, learning, and hence personal decision-making in such situations.

If you know of other tools, techniques and methodologies that work well in complex systems, please let me know. (That’s another way of getting people’s attention: asking questions and asking for help — again because it engages us to interact.)

Why are the tools and techniques in the top half of the attention/meaning chart above so effective at adding meaning and understanding to information? I think this is relatively easy to explain: show me don’t tell me. We understand better when we’re shown what something means, or how to do something, rather than just told. All of these high-meaning-adding tools demonstrate rather than simply relating meaning, which ties directly into the cognitive learning processes we have used since we first appeared on the planet.

What other tools exist, and what else can we do, as writers with important information to convey, to catch readers’ attention (honestly, not deceptively), and to demonstrate its meaning to them without oversimplifying? If you had a friend who’s idea of interesting information was what Brad Pitt’s baby had for breakfast today, or the stuff in the local crime blotter, how would you go about getting their attention on global warming, or disease pandemic preparation, or the End of Oil, or ending global poverty, and then conveying these terribly complex challenges and some of the approaches that might address them, in a way that would have meaning to them?

If we can answer that question, it could change everything.

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4 Responses to “Your Graphic Caught My Attention”

  1. Kay Dayss says:

    First, thank you, Dave, for doing the work you do. You make a huge difference.I don’t think we should try to grab peoples’ attention away from what they find important. I see any attempt to grab the attention of others as being control-related. In other words, I don’t think anything good ever comes from trying to control other people. People should do what brings them the most joy in every single moment. Other people should NOT pay any attention at all to what I think is important. They should pay attention to what THEY think is important. The Universe is orchestrating this great turning. If the violin thought that it should convince the oboe to shut up and listen to the strings, what would we have? A mess! 8-) I trust that the Universe knows what it is doing. My job is to pay attention to my own path.

  2. Kay Dayss says:

    That said, I think that for those who are naturally drawn to a particular topic deserve to have that information presented in as simple and clear a manner as possible. That’s where it is good to know which visual elements work best. In the case of the wiki, I never paid any attention to the wiki at all. I barely knew what they were. THEN I discovered a trick in Google where you can put “define:” at the front of a query and add any word that you want defined for you. Google then searches the Web for definitions and a lot of them are in wikis. This is the most useful tool for a writer/editor that I have ever in my entire life found. I LOVE IT. The Google tool brings the wiki to my attention at EXACTLY the time when I need the information and in a format that is simple to scan and easy to expand. This is technology!

  3. Phil says:

    Dialogue mapping and dynamic facilitation are two great tools, and not coincidentally they both involve charting group conversations on paper or computer projection screens.

  4. Mike says:

    The attempts of ‘global warming’ modelers to capture the entire biosphere would “necessarily be incomplete and misleading, a dangerous oversimplification that would inevitably lead to ineffective or even dysfunctional decisions and actions.”So why do you support the idea of man-made global warming when it uses the very tactics you condemn in this essay to garner support among the ill-informed?Basis:Hockey Stick Hokum – Wall Street Journal – July 2006http://www.climatescience.org.nz/assets/2006719215530.HockeyStickHokum.pdf“Fake But Accurate” Science?, American Thinker, Aug 2006http://www.americanthinker.com/articles.php?article_id=5770Recommendation:Let’s get the ‘climate change’ data used by the gloom and doom crowd that results in higher energy prices placed on the Net and let’s all take a look at it. The algorithms used to compute the results that Al Gore touts are fraudulent and in error (the “Enron of climate science”). This was discovered three years ago. Bottom line: man-made ‘global warming’ is a crock and we are being sold a complete bill of goods not supported by the data.

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