Tag Archives: information visualization

Lessons from Trainersville

Yesterday I ran my first ever day-long training workshop.

I’ve done plenty of workshops before, and written my own material, but this was the first time I’d ever planned, written and delivered an entire day on my own, start to finish: a big brain-dump of (nearly) everything I know and think about information presentation.

It didn’t start well. The venue, the British Psychological Society‘s offices in Leicester, was about 120 miles from where I live; all the advice you ever read about training events is “know your venue”, but I’d never been there before. I arrived with an hour to spare and found that the room we’d been allocated, for 21 workshop participants and me, was about 18′ x 12’ — maybe enough room for people to sit in tight rows, if they didn’t move much, or mind getting to know each other rather well, and god knew where the projector was going to go. And no tables. How were we going to do small group work?

Lesson 1: Unless you have nine lives, or live right across the planet, visit the venue first.

Simon, who worked the front desk, but also whose job it was to set up rooms, was fantastic. He talked to some people and got us moved to the big boardroom next door, the one in which only 10 people were scheduled to meet that day. We hulked tables around and marched chairs up and down the corridor. By the time the first participants arrived, everything was in place: tables, chairs, workshop packs. I think it drove Simon’s blood-pressure all the way up to 11, but he was ace, a real superstar. His colleague Rob likewise: they just took it all in stride.

Lesson 2: Great support staff are worth their weight in gold.

And then the workshop started. The morning was all about understanding teaching and learning; from there, we spent a bit of time before lunch creating visual aids. People started out very serious, but when I gave them explicit permission to be childlike and enjoy themselves with the pens and coloured paper, everything changed, and we got some great drawings and some really imaginative visual storytelling. One of the main points I wanted to get across was that you can’t start planning your information delivery from inside the slide software, or you — and your audience — are doomed to endless bullet-points and text-heavy visuals. Creativity should be fun; having fun with stationery isn’t something we get to do much anymore as adults, and a lot of people seemed to really engage with it.

Lesson 3: Getting in touch with your inner child is a fantastic spur to creativity.

In the afternoon, we talked about structuring your narrative and use of body-language. I played them the two clips that Nancy Duarte so generously posted on her blog, showing her body language before and after her training at Decker Communications. The participants were great: straight away they picked up on all the things Nancy herself said about her appearance — that before the training, she looked nervous, fidgety, bored-looking, insecure. Then I showed them the ‘after’ clip, and they ate it up: the bold gestures, the confidence, the presence. Go Nancy! I think we all wanted to go get trained at Decker after that :o)

Lesson 4: Show, don’t tell. I had originally planned to talk a bit about body-language, but I’m so glad I just showed the clips: everyone got it, instantly.

Of course, it didn’t all go smoothly. The projector decided, part-way through the afternoon, that lemon yellow was really the only colour worth projecting; we had a rather spectacular coffee-machine flood; the room was ridiculously hot; I quietly cut two exercises from the schedule when it became clear that we were running out of time because — the best reason in the world, this — people were engaged and wanted to talk about stuff. We dealt with all of these, and the world didn’t end. In fact, during the coffee flood, people pitched right in and helped clean up.

Lesson 5: Be flexible, and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself.

The whole workshop went really well, and participant feedback was great. Crucially, people seemed to get the relevance of what I was telling them, and see how they could put the material into practice themselves. The most useful facet of the day, the one most people said they would implement in their own work, seems to have been cognitive load: the idea that if you throw too much sensory information at someone, most of it won’t stick (like this post about TMI in education). Lots of people talked, in their feedback, about paring down their visuals, and reducing the information load on their audience. Job done!

I absolutely loved the whole experience, and learned loads. If my participants got even half as much as I did out of it, then I’m happy.


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Blogging: brain imaging for the mind

It’s 1995, and a student is moving flats for the fifth time in three years. She finds – again – the shoebox of diaries from her teenage years; curiosity forces the box open. Instead of packing, the student spends half the weekend re-reading the diaries and re-living her teens.

Then she shreds the lot and throws them out with the rest of the trash.

Re-encountering your 15-year-old self in writing is right up there with watching yourself on video as an exercise in mortification. But both represent great ways of kick-starting some metacognition: wow, did I really used to be/think/dress like that?

Thinking about your own thinking, learning, or understanding is one of the most valuable things you can take from education. Writing it all down makes it easier: when you can see your thoughts on paper, it’s much easier to critically evaluate them than when they’re all sloshing around inside your head. We are a very visual species, which is why we’ve developed so many ways of visualising abstract concepts. (That link, courtesy of @scottabel, is a beauty: mouse over each element and marvel.) Journalling or blogging is just one more way of visualising information; it’s useful both for understanding your own thought processes, and for reviewing your own progress over time.

At the APS conference in San Francisco, the poster next to mine was about how blogging can help students understand their own learning process. Then at the University Conference the other day, I got to listen to Jenni Barrett talking about how she asked final year students to blog regularly, and how this not only gave them space in which to reflect on their own learning, but also enabled part-time students to build a more cohesive community among themselves. Perhaps most critically, blogging may promote better academic performance by encouraging active, student-centred learning.

I’m going to start encouraging students – especially final year project students – to blog or keep a diary/lab-book about their studies, so they have another visualisation tool at their disposal, one that will promote metacognition. If you write/draw/create authentically, blogging or journalling of any kind can be a superb diagnostic tool, allowing you to visualise and evaluate what’s going on in your own head.

My favourite advice about blogging comes from Merlin Mann: good blogs are weird, and reflect focused obsessions. Be yourself, in all your nerdy, quirky glory. The more you you are, the stronger your connection to your own thought processes will become, and the more you will be able to develop your ideas – which, incidentally, is why it’s so important to choose research projects that speak to your interests.

(As usual, this post is not the one I sat down to write; I never know until I see it in front of me what needs to be added or removed. Visualisation tools are brilliant.)

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Beauty, abstraction and storytelling

Garr Reynolds, consummate presenter. Check out those slides – just beautiful. I’m a huge fan of his book, too – Garr’s presentational style is really something to aspire to: simple, elegant, and entertaining. Also, he frames everything using stories, something for which I’m a sucker; I think storytelling is an aspect we often ignore when constructing presentations and/or writing slides for teaching, because we get distracted by the structure and format of the slides.

Also, via Garr Reynolds (yeah, okay, this post is just a big, late Valentine) comes this: guy does stuff with moving dots, makes sense. Watch the videos; chew on the method. It’s way easier on the brain than just talking about things in the abstract with no visual aids. Sweet. I’m going to try this next time I have something complicated to explain that doesn’t really come with pictures attached.

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Why cartography is such a good communication tool

Maps are a brilliant way of communicating information.

For me, maps work on two levels. The first is that they provide a visual representation of a landmass — or figurative landmass, like the organisation of a companythe brain, or the Dewey Decimal System — some structure with which we are largely unfamiliar and need to be better acquainted. The world gets smaller when you can map it and contain it within a single image: by delineating the boundaries, you are effectively constraining what lies in the Here Be Dragons quadrant of known unknowns. Having a map of the terrain is useful for developing confidence: just as you wouldn’t tackle a mountain without having checked out the map first, students find it reassuring when they know what you are going to cover in a lecture, even if they don’t yet have a handle on the details.

The second reason maps are useful is to provide a familiar structure for new information. The most obvious recent example of this is Mark Newman’s fantastic 2008 electoral maps of the US, in which this

US electoral map.jpg

becomes this

US electoral map_distorted.jpg

becomes this

US electoral map_really-distorted.jpg

though by that point it almost starts looking like something out of Babylon 5.

Because — it is assumed — we are sufficiently familiar with the underlying structure, we are free to explore the new data: how did a given state, county or timezone vote? What could potentially be a really complex information set if just dumped on us wholesale (for example, in the form of statistics) now becomes easily graspable, because it’s framed by a known structure.

We could do this more in teaching: provide an early, basic road-map to students about the borders of the area under discussion, and progressively revisit and colour in the missing pieces. This is not always how we do things: a popular pedagogic M.O.  seems to be to introduce Topic A and then fill in all the details before moving on to Topic B, etc. — but what we could do is show a map of Topics A through H first, and then revisit each topic once students have understood where the edges of the map are.

Good teaching practice means being more explicit about maps.

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Ignore visual metaphor at your peril

I went to a research talk recently. It was a brilliant example of how to talk lucidly about science despite having poor graphical representations of the data.

The the speaker was youngish, eloquent, and unashamed of it (more people should really use the word perforce). He even referred explicitly to the narrative: “The story I am going to tell you today …” So he had me on-side from the start, because I am a sucker for narrative, and the storytelling aspect of scientific communication.

Unfortunately, his graphs and tables and figures were pretty bad. Most of the time it was all I could do to figure out what the data actually were actually saying. About halfway through his presentation, I more or less stopped looking at the slides because I couldn’t understand them, and trying to figure them out was making me miss what he was saying.

So here’s an example of how not to illustrate the relationship between two variables, A and B, under conditions 1, 2, 3 and 4:


Straight away, we are having to work harder than we should, because the scale is inverted, and doesn’t follow the conventional metaphor of “up is more, down is less”.  (Yes, I understand that negative scales should go downward, but when you are emphasising increases in the difference between two variables, it’s just clumsy presentation.)

What he could have done instead was this, in which up and down retain their metaphorical values of ‘more’ and ‘less’, respectively:


Here, the x-axis crosses the y-axis at zero, and that the magnitude of the difference between A and B is the same, but that I’ve ditched the negative scale. Why? Because it’s just more intuitive to think in terms of positive values: we do this every day when we handle pieces of fruit, or money.

Also, I just don’t find ‘mean difference’ graphs all that intuitive. Why show people the results of a subtraction when they can work it out by eyeballing the difference between variables, like this?


(This last figure is also more information-rich, since it retains the absolute values of A and B.)

I didn’t have enough ego to approach this guy and say “listen, this stuff is great, but your diagrams kinda suck.” Maybe I should have — sure, I’d have been more diplomatic than that — but I didn’t feel like I had the moral authority. Plus, he was a very good speaker, and it would’ve been rude.

Einstein allegedly wrote that “The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Maybe we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to surrender those experiential data.


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