Edward Tufte has always been years ahead of the game when it comes to visual communication, particularly the communication of complex data sets and ideas. As well as writing four hugely influential books on data visualisation, the man the New York Times called “the Leonardo Da Vinci of data” and Business Week described as “the Galileo of graphics” has spent years telling the world where they’re going wrong when it comes to visuals, and everyone is just starting to catch up with him. Too bad they weren’t listening a decade ago…
This week I was watching a few Tufte videos on YouTube—a couple of keynote speeches, an Intelligence Squared presentation and a talk around one of his books. In each one he touched on one very simple but essential point: visual communication isn’t the important thing, really—the information that it is communicating is. Tufte talks about the need for “content-led design”, visual comms that allow the form and aesthetics of a presentation to be determined and decided by the information being presented.
Talking about communicating ideas, particularly complex ideas, Tufte refers to a “whatever it takes” mentality. The important thing for any presentation is to communicate a certain idea or a value, so the presentation should be assembled in a way that best communicates that idea. That often means mixing mediums—some text, some simple, clean visuals, speech, video, handouts… whatever it takes. This is the polar opposite to the mindset common in modern multi-nationals, where form comes first and content is made to fit that form (“how can we explain this idea using that video tech suite we blew last quarter’s budget on?” / “I read somewhere that infographics are big this year, can we get something around that?”).
There are always factors beyond the presenter’s control—an audience will bring their own biases, contexts and experience to the plate, the room can feel and react differently on any given day. Those variables mean that “whatever it takes” can vary dramatically from day to day. Your people’s presentation skills need to have contingency built in for those unpredictable variables.
But the information itself is always more important than the presentation, and always more important than how that information is being shared. Evidence, says Tufte, is evidence, whatever form it takes. The information doesn’t care how it is presented, doesn’t change depending on how it is delivered, and, crucially, isn’t improved or made more legitimate just by being explained in a more compelling way.
We know that visual communication can help to push a great idea forward. It can help prospects, colleagues, customers and partners to understand the value of your offering, the positioning of your product, or your vision for the future. It will massively aid understanding. It will massively aid information retention. It has a huge part to play in the “whatever it takes” school of information sharing.
But, as Edward Tufte says, “style and aesthetics cannot rescue failed content. If the words aren’t truthful, the finest typography won’t turn lies into truths.”
How we communicate an idea, a set of ideas or a complex body of data only matters because it can aid understanding and retention of that data. Delivering that information in a sticky, understandable and engaging way is vital… as long as it is worth communicating. Visual comms, from a napkin doodle to a whiteboard presentation, and from a simple infographic to a leading Cisco multimedia suite cannot make your idea better or your information truer.
Put as simply as possible, visual communication can’t save rubbish ideas. You can give a great presentation on a good idea. You can give a game-changing presentation that moves decision makers to action on a great idea. But bad ideas, untrue data sets, or value propositions with shaky foundations won’t be made better or truer or more valuable just by how you present them.
If you’ve got a great idea, a product that you know your customers need, or a value that needs communicating in a compelling, concise and consistent way, let’s talk. Drop me a line on LinkedIn or Twitter now to get the ball rolling.