Monday, January 06, 2014

Show Me the Sources

There’s an old saying in the market research industry: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” If you’re not sure what that means, take a look at a good post this week on Fast Company’s design blog about infographics and how misleading they can be.

We’ve written previously on The PR Lawyer about the power of “showing instead of telling,” and infographics continue to be a fantastic way to quickly present often complicated information to an audience that’s short on time or attention. The problem, as the Fast Company post illustrates, is that the visual channel employed by infographics can also be used to mislead.

The best way to guard against this in your data presentations, visual or otherwise, is to cite your sources. Whenever possible, the citations should be presented in conjunction with the visual data you’re presenting. In some formats, though, this isn’t possible without crowding the data or compromising readability.

If that’s the case, borrow a page from academia’s playbook and put a “Notes” slide or section at the conclusion of your slide deck or infographic. At a bare minimum, provide a link to a web page or other document that provides the sources for your data. If you collected and compiled the data yourself, have a description of your methodology available. What did you count? Who did you survey? When, and for how long? How did you filter the results?

If you’re presenting to a live audience, keep a handful of hard copies of this information on hand. If someone asks for it, you don’t want to be caught empty-handed.

Even if your infographic’s data is ironclad and properly sourced, be careful about using visual cues to make ideas appear more important than they may actually be. Emphasizing information that bolsters the message you’re sending is fine. It’s better than fine – it is, in fact, exactly what you should be doing. Just be mindful that when you push that method too far, the lens you provide your audience stops merely presenting a particular viewpoint and instead begins to distort. When you do that, a perceptive audience will tune you out … or worse.

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