Most dictionary definitions would describe Visualisation on a technical level as “the representation of an object, situation, or set of information as a chart or other image”. On a more abstract level Visualisation would be defined as “the formation of a mental image of something”.
The transformation of verbal or numerical information into visuals has become an almost compulsory process when speakers use a slideware program in their presentations. Edward Tufte, in Envisioning Information, has identified four principles that should govern the process: “the visual representation of information must be accurate, compact, adequate for the purpose and easy to understand”.
The basic premise is that people are clever enough to understand prose but challenged when it comes to understanding graphics. Visualisation should aid comprehension not act as a substitute. In the words of Einstein : “An explanation should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
In other words, visuals should not be used to deceive; graphical integrity should be always observed. There are 5 questions to guide the author how to produce and incorporate precise and comprehensive visuals:
- Does the visual tell the true story?
- Does it represent facts and ideas without bias and prejudice?
- Is it based on facts or opinions?
- Does it offer a balanced point of view or reference?
- Can logical comparisons, contrasts and contexts deduced?
In addition to comprehensible, visuals should be aesthetically pleasing. The use of colours, fonts as well as other decorative elements should concern the author. However, they should not mislead, misrepresent, distort or falsify facts. Remember that the abuse of decorative elements can lead to misunderstandings either intentionally or accidentally. To paraphrase, “comprehension lies in the eyes of the beholder”.
Five Effective Practices
Clarity and Focus. During a presentation, the speaker is limited by both time and space as to how much of the content of his work to present. Careful selection of the most important aspects of the work should filter what and how much should be presented to aid the speaker; to support the main point of the talk; to help the audience benefit from the time and effort they invested in attending the talk.
Order and Hierarchy. During the discussion of the information which is presented visually, it should be paramount why the content is important and how it relates to what precedes and what follows it. The transition from one section to the next, from one data set to the next, from one idea to the next should be seamless and effortless. The progression should run smoothly with the constituent parts forming a coherent hole.
Mixing and Matching. The purpose of visuals is to add variety and interest to what otherwise could be a boring and monotonous monologue. Whether the speaker is creating charts using the default software available or searching for visuals on the internet, he should aim for originality and innovation. The aesthetics of the presentation is also a vivid representation of the identity and character of the speaker himself. Extra caution should be exercised.
Tell a story. The unassuming presentation of data can be void of emotion and personal involvement. It is quite the opposite effect that you would like your presentation to have on your audience. Engagement, tension, flow and climax are the qualities of a good story that easily come to mind. The same rules apply to a presentation and to the visuals included in it. In addition visuals should assist the speaker, not eclipse him; they should work with him, not against him.
Abbreviations and symbols. They certainly save space and time. On the other hand, how familiar is the audience with the jargon of the speaker’s area of expertise? How much familiarisation do the contractions or acronyms require? Are they easy to remember? Are they communicating the right message and feeling about the presentation content? Are they compliant with the principles outlined previously?
Finally, in the words of John W. Tukey, the American mathematician: “The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see”.