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Data Viz, Data Whiz: Storytelling with Data

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Guest Post: Liz Banse

There was nary a seat available in the packed room at the Thursday afternoon breakout session on Seeing is Believing: Data Visualization for Philanthropy. The first data visualization exercise was performed by the Hyatt hotel staff who eyeballed all the people standing or sitting on the floor and made a guesstimate at how many additional chairs were needed and would fit in the room.

Lisa Philp, William Hanson, Christine Haran and Diane DiGiacomo shared their own experiences with taking their data and making it visual…and much easier to consume. As Diane said, “We get more reaction from people like the mayor of Denver from our (data) maps than anything else. They see it and say, ‘Wow, I get it.’”

Since we are all communicators in this group we are well aware that people process information best when it is presented in the form of a story, not a list of facts. Data visualization takes a different approach to storytelling that is visual. What better way is there to live and die by the adage to “Show, not tell”?

Lisa noted that while their reports might be popular for a short time, their visuals are circulated and viewed for up to a year after they are published.

There was a robust discussion on infographics, everything from who recommends which designers and what web resources were available to a question on how one might approach visualizing qualitative versus quantitative data.

Since infographics seem to be all the rage among nonprofits and foundations alike, not to mention flying across social media everywhere and on every topic imaginable, I wanted to share some additional thinking on best practices in this realm, though this is certainly not the only approach to data visualization out there.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy had an article in March with good guidance on infographics. Below, I’ve combined the Chronicle’s excellent advice with some of Resource Media staff’s own thoughts, based on experience communicating issues as complex as climate change and biofuels visually.

  1. Get clear on goals. Is the infographic designed to raise awareness, mobilize supporters, generate media coverage?
  2. Compile the data you need, cite the sources, and make sure they’re credible.
  3. Translate numbers into concepts people can relate to: a bushel of corn is enough to feed a person for six weeks, 1,000 acres is the size of Golden Gate Park.
  4. Keep it simple. Streamline information and visuals so the infographic can be viewed without scrolling.
  5. Make it look good. Graphs and tables will not inspire people to share. Use figures that tell a story at a glance.
  6. Create a media plan. Treat it like a report release and come out with guns blazing in the first day (while knowing you can keep pushing it out for days afterward, unlike a traditional press release).
  7. Develop pitches, template tweets, and Facebook posts ahead of time using buzz-worthy keywords.
  8. Time strategically. Connect the infographic to breaking news or a current trend.
  9. Publish the infographic online and make it easy to share on social media or embed in a blog or website.
  10. Use bit.ly to track clicks from your outreach efforts, and document lessons learned.

Have tips to share from your own infographic or other data visualization adventures? I am sure your fellow Communications Network peers would love to hear them!

 Liz Banze is an associate director at Resource Media





  1. Deena LeventerDeena Leventer10-12-2012

    Thanks to Liz for this and to the presenters for showcasing what promises to be ‘the next big thing’ a critical set of tools as we all struggle to dig ourselves out from under the avalanche of information that threatens to bury us. Here are a few thoughts inspired by that session:

    1. We have to be careful about how we describe the use of infographics and data visualization. It is not about simplifying. It is about making the information more accessible. Bill gave a wonderful example of an infographic that used audio beeps to indicate the difference in finish times on a site about the Olympics. A very powerful way to get that message across – but certainly not what I would call ‘simple’.
    2. In the same way that creating an all- encompassing tagline takes great skill to produce, creating a great infographic demands the ability to conceptualize and translate ideas into visual form.
    3. As someone pointed out – this is not necessarily a task for even the best and brightest graphic artist. We will need to rely on professionals and be careful of expectations that we can produce creative, engaging and illuminating graphic displays of information the way we generate graphs from Excel charts. Otherwise, there will be a proliferation of bad Infographics and Data Visualizations out there which have done nothing to distil the information that is really useful to our audiences or give them greater perspective on issues and problems.
    5. Finally, we need to distinguish between functions of aggregating information and presenting. We saw some great examples of data collaboration. Here too we need to go through the difficult process of distilling and prioritizing and then finding clever, engaging, unorthodox, revealing ways to present it.

  2. Liz BanseLiz Banse10-12-2012

    Deena, great advice. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with the Comms Network!

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