Planning: Captivating your audience with the right story

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Planning: Captivating your audience with the right story

Planning how you will use the information from the data is a critical piece to visualizing information effectively. In this discussion, we want to explore the steps involved in planning and share examples from your own experiences. What advice would you give to someone who is new to this approach? Consider these questions below when sharing your comments in this discussion topic:

  • Who are the target audiences?
  • What are the message/s?
  • How do you know what to leave out? Just because you collected it all doesn't mean you have to show it all.
  • How to identify the appropriate form or design for your information (i.e. map, cartoon, graph)?
  • What are other questions you need to ask yourself before starting to visualise the information?

Share your thoughts, experiences, questions, challenges and ideas by replying to the comments below.

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please visit these online instructions. New feature: you can now add images and video to your comments!

Use of graphics and data

I am currently working with an animal rights NGO to help them with their advocacy campaigns related to live export, cosmetics testing on animals etc. Our target audience is middle-class voters and we want to avoid a backlash against graphic images and to ensure that we are not censured by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which has quite stringent regulations for offensive or provocative content.

A similar debate is also taking place among human rights defenders trying to shake off "Syria Fatigue" as a winter-time humanitarian crisis looks set to escalate exponentially with no let-up in sight to the violence.

How do you balance the need to shake people out of their complacency and their ability to disassociate from in-your-face suffering with the assumption that if they get the facts that they will do something or at least think about something in a different way?

Infographics are great, but audiences already need to be engaged emotionally otherwise it's just data. 

In the example of animal rights (which is extremely controversial here because of the economic benefits to the economy of live export and the culturally low status of animals), one tactic I used for a campaign against vivisection was to combine empathy with facts and allow the information to breathe. I ignored all the information on testing for science or medicine because cosmetic testing is a "low-hanging fruit" and our point of entry into the wider debate on scientific experiments on live animals.

I developed a series of web banners and posters featuring close-ups of "cute" baby animals - puppies, kittens, bunnies, guinea pigs. I did not use monkeys or rats, even though these are the species most commonly used in cosmetics testing, because these do not have the same empathy pull as baby companion animals. All the animals were white or light coloured and pictured against a white background to emphathise the big brown eyes and the facial features. All looked fit and healthy and playful and looked directly at the camera. I used slogans such as  "The real face of cruelty-free beauty" or "Some cosmetics tell you they don't test on live animals."  

The statement was followed by a simple call to action - (check against a website link for companies that don't test on animals/write to your MP to protest/join us next week etc). Text was minimal because I wanted emotions - particularly empathy - to predominate. 

The banners then linked, either directly or via URL, to basic, memorable numbers that people could relate to and use in their letters or conversations with others (free viral marketing).

It will be interesting to see how we develop other campaigns for rural, non-networked audiences, particularly those in areas where live export is a cornerstone of communities ...


The risk of taking shocking images too far

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on using images to engage audiences on an emotion level. It is important to reach people on that level, but take care because backlash from the government isn't the only risk. I am a member of an online community of campaigners using online tools and tactics to reach audiences (eCampaigning Forum). A few months ago, there was a lively debate about one particular mailing sent by GreenPeace using an image of a dead polar bear (below) to shock recipients into action.

The image was shared by one of the members of the listserv who was particularly concerned about his 7 year old son who found the letter on their doormat. He highlighted some the questions and concerns that came to him, as he is a camaigner himself (I am sharing this with consent of the original author of the email):

  1. As a professional: did Greenpeace run out of clever on this one? We're talking about an organisation that has launched some of the most inspired and inspiring campaigns out there. From VW Dark Side to Scaling the Shard and beyond, Greenpeace is capable of incredible stuff. So why resort to this dumb shock approach, which is more of a bedfellow for the unrefined tactics of the anti-abortion lobby than what Greenpeace is really good at? What went wrong? Does clever campaigning not work anymore?
  2. As a moralist: is it OK to position images like this, with no immediate context, in a place (doormat, billboard, wherever) where they will be discovered so easily by children and others who cannot discover or understand that context for themselves? Fine, send me images like this, embedded in their story, given meaning, inside their envelope. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe anything goes. Maybe no bad thing to post into family homes envelopes printed with aborted foetuses and the disembodied remains of bomb victims. Maybe indiscriminate cluster bomb mail drops of shock and awe are the only way to garner support.
  3. As a dad, a simple question for our Greenpeace colleagues: how dare you? I have backed you for a long time. The issues you campaign on are bigger than one family, bigger than one child with emotional issues. But this one fundraising effort is not. You have no right to harm my son like that.
  4. Finally, in general: am I overreacting? I’m protective. I’m cross. But I think I’m right. I have an urge to blog about it. Please, talk me back from the brink.

What do you think about the use of the image below? Did Greenpeace go too far?

-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

GreenPeace mailing with an image of polar bear on front of envelope
The quest for the Aha-Moment

Want to experience an Aha-Moment in very short time? 
Then have a look at this one from Amanda Cox of the "New York Times": "The Jobless Rate for People Like You". 

This is one of my favourite interactive charts, partially because it is smartly made, rule-breaking with good reason and captivating. The story here: When we hear about unemployment media often talkes about the average unemployment indicator. How does that relate to me? How do unemployment rates differ by gender, age and education. They differ a LOT. And this is what this interactive chart can tell you, quickly. 

The rule breaking part here is that normally you are not allowed to put more than three lines into one chart, it's then becoming a spaghetti chart and not very clear anymore. On the web though, you can use effects like "mouse-over" (something is only shown when the mouse hovers over it") and this can be used to pack a ton of information into one view, while not confusing the viewer.


Captivating audiences, challenging "gut feeling"

@jacky: While I understand your point about using engaging pictures, etc. I still don't agree that much (don't get this wrong). Basically this is advertising. I know that in a lot of cases it might be unavoildable to lean on such tactics, but looking into the future I hope/believe that we might be able to rely on principles of trust, driven by data. 

Yes, it is true that we don't emphasize with larger groups, which is why they show only one child on advertising poster asking for donations. This is basically unchangeable and deeply routed in human behavior. But by using data better, we might break through the mold if we manage to get the story closer to the viewer. 

What could be a data-driven approach then?

One suggestion: Find a common denominator. Example: How long to you have to work for a beer? How long do others work for a beer? 

There actually is a measurement for that, which translates the otherwise very blurry currencies around the world into a common, very understandable measurement: working minutes. You get to the working minute by dividing the money earned per hour through 60. Then you ask specific prices of common goods (rice, milk, salt, cigarettes, beer). Apply the earnings per minute and you come to the "working minute". This is not very common, but very helpful. For example, it helps you to overcome the blurryness of different currencies and inflation rates over time. 

One chart where they applied that measure comes from The Economist.


Common denominator.

Thanks Mirko. Finding a common denominator is a great suggestion.

Slighlty related, I have found a variant of that principle quite useful during data exploration. An example of how valuable it was for me in the past could be found in the attached image: during the work we were doing to find data to support the case for reform in ICE directives, we found that taking a look to the bigger picture was useful to found what were the key features of the issue we were focusing at the time. We ended up finding that vectors of transfers for detainnees were key to explain cost, length of detention, distance from family, etc. Visualizing the data early in the process was also very useful.

A masterful storyteller at work, using (lot's of) data

For your viewing pleasure: If you did not see this before, this is a great example on how to engage an audience with a data-driven story.


How *not* to do it

A very useful activity that I did at a data visualisation workshop held by Tactical Tech was to look through visualisations, and try and sum up their message in a few words. It was harder than you might think! It was very easy to glance quickly at a visualisation and be impressed by the design on a purely aesthetic level, but some of the images we looked at were completely unsuited for their audience and actually showed very little in terms of useful information. 

I would suggest as a basic exercise to do once you've come up with an idea for a visualisation would be to sum it up in a phrase, or ask someone who has not been working with you on it to do it. If they can't; start thinking again! 

Some examples of bad visualisations (mainly for your entertainment ;-) - can be seen here:

That is exactly the right question

@Zararah, that is exactly the right question: can this information point be easily summarized by someone who didn't make the graphic just by looking at? I wish more folks would pause to do that before publishing.



Telling stories with words and images

Some narratives are instantly recognisable, as they come from the wider universe of storytelling. These include stories that follow patterns such as ‘the crisis and the solution’, ‘the perpetrator and the victim’, ‘the symptom and the cause’ and ‘friends and enemies.’

Many advocates have also been quick to adopt narrative innovations that use complex techniques to build stories, rather than just telling them. A technique that was used in the global climate change campaign 350 and in Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign in 2008 was based on Marshall Ganz’s formulation, story of you, story of us, story of now. It encourages people to craft personal stories that connect them to the wider community and to the problems a campaign is working on.

One way to think about how to use and layer stories with more detailed information is to create a visual executive summary of the main points contained in a more extensive set of documents. This can also create layers of reading, enabling people to explore an issue superficially or more extensively. Giorgia Lupi, an information designer from the Milan based studio Accurat, calls this sort of presentation nonlinear storytelling:

“The big picture is the shape of the story and this must be seen at a first glance. From this high-level view... further levels of non-linear exploration may then invite readers to ‘get lost’ within the story or stories and engage at deeper levels’. 


The Story of Bottled Water is a campaign video created by an environmental non-profit called the Story of Stuff Project. This video is one of a number they have made that highlight the social, economic and political aspects of mass consumption and the related environmental degradation. The Story of Bottled Water is simple. It works to nudge people who may already be unsure about drinking bottled water, but haven’t yet taken a strong position, or who have friends and family who haven’t really questioned their practices. The narrative is structured to do the following:

• Outline and explain the history and scale of the problem; then,

• Suggest the solution to the problem; and, finally

• Ask the audience for support.


Extract from Tactical Tech's new book Visualising Information for Advocacy

Data speaks...and sometimes tells a different story.

Hi Everyone,

Great discussion happening. I wanted to share a simple, data-driven chart we created at Syria Tracker that people frequently referenced, requested, downloaded and used because it was user friendly and made the data easy to digest. Our target audience is broad, and includes members of the media, government officials, aid workers and the general public. Basically, anyone that is interested in the data, but does not want to go through dense excel spread sheets. 

Based on the reports and data we receive from the ground, we highlighted the top ten causes of death in Syria due to the conflict. Aside from the way people died, it provided information based on real reports and numbers. This was important because for example, the data showed that more people were dying of gun shot wounds, and not air bombings, which was the assumption by many official entitites at the time.  

We have also created materials around women and children abuses, disease outbreaks, relief needs and information we receive from refugees.  Citizens were telling their own stories by submitting pictures, videos and reports to Syria Tracker. 

The data speaks, and governments, media and UN agencies are listening. Part of our job at Humanitarian Tracker is to make sure people can understand what the data is showing and what it means. In our experience, this was a great way to do it.



Thanks, Hend! It is a very easy to understand graphic. I think it's really interesting (and maybe unique?) that Humanitarian Tracker is able to be flexible enough (and organized enough) with its data to be able to respond to requests for visualizations that answer certain questions. Kudos!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Unstructured Data in Arabic...

Thank you, Kristin! Really appreciate the positive feedback. 

We receive a large amount of unstructured (large free text, video, audio, images) data, and mostly in Arabic, so it's important to us that our partners and folks looking for information can access it easily and in the right context. 




Thanks for sharing Hend. A few questions:  Was this released with more information that provides context? I don't see the number of reports that this is counting. How many reports does this consider? Was all of this information harvested from social media? How was the information corroborated?  

The Nitty-Gritty.

Great questions, Enrique. We often receive similar ones from the media and official agencies that use our data. 

The graph above represents actual numbers, not estimations. Our reports are received directly from the citizens, organizations, coordinating units among other partners on the ground in Syria and neighboring countries. The data mentioned above does not include social or mainstream media, those we use to provide additional context and are published on Syria Tracker as a separate feed. The data in the graph above was distilled from over 3800 reports received since the conflict broke out in March 2011. These reports have been approved and mostly verified (more than 99%). 

The total number of reports published, 3800, is only about 6% of all reports we received, which is over 63,000 and counting.  As far as corroborating the information, please see our methods published here  (published 01/18/12, but the methods are largely the same).  As far as the biases surrounding Syria Tracker reports as a data source, please refer to this statement published by Humanitarian Tracker earlier this year. 

Context is provided for each killing documented including name (when available), time, place (down to the neighborhood), cause of killing, video or picture (over 60% of the cases) and general comment field describing the incident or the event where the killing happened. This data is available on Syria Tracker's public website, if you select the summary category in CSV format as well as shape files. Additionally, we provide shape files Syrian Census as of 2004 for standardization purposes. The summary analysis also includes killing per 10,000 population to provide a standardized rate within different regions of Syria or for global comparisons. Deaths Per 10,000 population is the total of deaths reported (in 2011-present) for every 10,000 of 2004 population.  While this measure is not precise, the aim is to get a notion of which areas have suffered more on relative basis.  (Not only does this not measure any population gains in an area, but it does not address refugees.)



Ira Glass on the two key elements of storytelling

Just wanted to share with you one of my favourite interviews about storytelling! 

Ira talks about the two basic building blocks of storytelling: an anecdote or sequence of actions that raises questions from the beginning, implying that the viewer will receive an answer; and a reflective moment i.e. what it all means. 

Interactive Mapping

Continuing my theme of geographic data visualization, one of the larger projects I've been involved with was the site Eyes on Nigeria with Amnesty International, USA. If you go and explore the site, under Interactive Evidence, you'll find an interactive map of Nigeria and all the different human rights issues we tried to document using various forms of geolocated information (satellite imagery, photos, interviews, data collected from other sources).

Some sections of the interactive map are more successful than others and that has a lot to do with understanding when to use an online map and when not to. For example: 

  • Policing and Justice (first graphic below) just doesn't have enough information to warrant an interactive layer at this scale. It has very few data points and they don't convey much information. You really want a lot of points available for an interactive map so that there is a lot to explore and so that the weight of an issue can be understood- only a few points across the whole country lessens the impact of information about this serious human rights concern.
  • Forced Evictions- Port Harcourt (second graphic below). Building on my example of Port Harcourt from yesterday's topic, we added this as an interactive section on the site and it is better suited to visualization than the "Policing and Justice" data. There isn't only point data, but also georeferenced pictures of residents who lost their homes in the demolition and interviews with some of them. There is also a time slider of the before/after satellite imagery to help convey the severity of the situation. Having several things for people to explore is a key factor in this type of visualization. 

The moral of my story is to make sure you have enough information to tell an impactful story if you want to map something, particularly if you want to have an interactive map. Don't just use it because you can or you think it looks cool. You could end up reducing the impact of your data.

Eyes on Nigeria, Policing and Justice map
Eyes on Nigeria, Port Harcourt demolitions with resident photo and interview
Interactive map tracking Syria's defections

Thanks for sharing this, Susan! Making maps interactive adds another layer of engagement to your visualizations. Being able to explore the information and dig deeper is really powerful. For me, it helps me to better understand what I'm looking at - you can look at it from different angles, so to speak.

Another interesting example of an interactive map is the Syria Defections Map, made by Google Ideas and Aljazeera. This map collects information about the status of individuals in the Syrian regime in relation to their loyalty/defection to the regime. It allows the user to 'zoom out' and zoom in' based on the kind of information they are looking for.

The information being visualized is really interesting. I can image a human rights campaign using this information to know who to put pressure on, who could influence whom, etc - to eventually tip the scale in their favor.

What other thoughts and examples are out there related to interactive maps?

-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Screenshot of Aljazeera's Syria's defections map
International Criminal Tribunals: A Visual Introduction

Apologies for the late post. It appears there was an oversight processing my user name/password.

I've attached an example of a international justice/information design project I headed at Fordham Law School, which paired in-depth legal research carried out by students with visual design assistance from graphic and information designers.

The 90-page report focuses on the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), and the International Criminal Court (ICC). For each of these tribunals, the publication presents: Information about the tribunal's underlying conflict(s); A timeline of domestic and international events surrounding the conflict(s); Information about the work of the tribunal; A procedural timeline for each case filed before the tribunal; As well as information on cross-cutting issues of relevance to all the tribunals, including: The number and types of crimes charged and convictions; The tribunals' relative costs; and sentencing by tribunal and by crime.

The full report can be accessed at: Criminal Tribunals.pdf


Daniel McLaughlin (