Prompted by a tweet from Lucy Gower about the power of visuals in communications, an anecdote I really like sprung to mind that highlights the competing forces of how we are naturally inclined think and what we’re taught to think. I forget where I read it, but it was almost certainly in one of the books listed here or here (I think it was probably Switch by Chip & Dan Heath, but I could be wrong).
As I remember it, it goes like this*…
Researchers observed a group of MBA students at Harvard Business School who were asked to give a presentation on a recent project to their classmates. The students were then told to grade each other on the quality of their presentations. The students who delivered presentations full of facts and figures were rated considerably better by their peers than the ones who favoured stories and pictures.
However, when the researchers went back to interview the students a few months later they asked them what they could remember from the presentations they’d seen. Despite the low marks the students had given them, the things that they could remember were not the facts and figures, but the pictures and stories.
And there lies the problem we face…Generally our brains find it much easier to remember an image or a story than facts – you might say we’re hard-wired to remember stories and there seems to be some basis for the phrase ‘a picture tells a thousand words’! However, through schooling, business and cultural norms we are conditioned to value facts and figures more highly than stories and pictures. Any participatory practitioner or visual artist will not be surprised to hear this…the value of storytelling and visualising in communicating and engaging people is well known. And of course MBA students are not particularly typical of society at large. However there has been a huge growth of MBAs within the public and private sector over recent years and this sort of thinking – valuing facts more highly than a story – is commonplace in boardrooms up and down the country.
Why does this matter? I think these two quotes from Albert Einstein help highlight the problem
Storytelling and images – and words, if used correctly – are far more creative and imaginative than regurgitating facts. [I acknowledge that when one gets to the advanced level of maths and physics that Einstein was working on an element of creativity and beauty comes into play too]. As a society we risk inhibiting learning and social advancement if we continue to under-value creative expression in this way. God knows what Einstein would have made of the recent proliferation of MBA courses.
We face a constant pressure to justify the legitimacy of pictures and stories as evidence (putting to one side the current government’s distaste for ‘evidence based policy making’). But we know that they are more likely to convey a message that sticks in people’s minds. Ministers are forever asking civil servants (who in turn are always asking me and my peers in the VCS) for a ‘good story’ that they can drop into a speech they’re giving. They know the value of a good story.
I’ve been interested in making information visual for some time. Initially I came up with the idea of ‘Policy in Pictures’ as a way of encouraging Whitehall’s producers of weighty volumes of fine words to adopt a more visual approach to communicating their ideas. Noel Hatch built on this concept to come up with ‘Visual Camp’ which we’ve worked on together, along with Visual Facilitator Emily Wilkinson and others.
Visual Camp is a participatory process for helping policy makers, citizens and designers to explore and visualise a topic. It builds on what we know about the power of images, whilst creating a space for debate and discussion to take place. There has been excellent work on storytelling too that Nicky Getgood and Lloyd Davis (to name just two) have been doing. [If you’re interested, I’d strongly recommend having a look at the fantastic content that was generated from Storycamp] which was held recently.
‘Selling stories and pictures’ will be tough if a ‘it’s not facts and figures’ mentality continues to prevail – even without the tough financial climate – but until we overcome that in-built bias, we can’t expect our communications to really connect with people as well as they might.
For some strange reason I keep coming across quotes from scientists that highlight better than most the importance of images and stories. So I’ll leave the final word to Nobel-winning scientist Peter Debye: ‘I can only think in pictures…..it’s all visual’.
*I apologise unreservedly for any inaccuracies, omissions and not being able to remember where I read it. I blame New Labour for their mismanagement of my brain during their time in office 😉