Using visuals to connect with an audience

image of a landscape with bright colours depicting different levels of nutrients. Image credit: CSIRO
Map from the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia showing total nitrogen in top 5 centimetres of soil. Source: CSIRO.

Last week I wrapped up a major project at work. It had been a labour of love for about 4 months with initial brainstorming and planning happening almost 8 months ago.

I helped a research team launch an online digital mapping portal. This stuff is pretty amazing. The researchers have established a digital mapping framework for the whole of Australia, structured as a ‘mesh’ with ‘pixels’ that are roughly 90 x90 metre in size. And they’ve made a bunch of brand new, high resolution, digital maps using data gathered from field work, laboratory analysis, satellite maps and computer models.

Anyway, what they achieved is significant on a global scale. But to a non-scientist or even someone in the general public who might only be vaguely interested in science and technology, let alone soil and the Australian landscape, this could be pretty dry material.

Visuals are an extremely important element of telling stories and making a connection with an audience. A picture truly can say a thousand words. Ask any journalist and they’ll tell you that media stories with an amazing picture are automatic contenders for front pages. Those stories without; well good luck getting early page coverage.

Still and moving images can help convey so much so easily, taking away the need for confusing verbal or written explanations.

I recently attended a talk by a Data Editor from one of the big papers here in Australia. He talked about an infographic from 1862, thought to be one of the earliest produced. Charles Joseph Minard, was a French civil engineer, who pioneered the use of graphics. This map of of Napoleon’s expeditions and awful losses of troops is just amazing. I’m sure that a great oral storyteller could do a great job of conveying this epic sojourn but the key here is that images can create immediate impact in a short timeframe.

Getting back to my scientists… I was able to make the case about the importance of imagery to help tell our stories. We had some fun with beautiful coloured maps (like the one at the top of this post), flythroughs the digital mapping interface (featured on Facebook) and, my personal favourite, an animation (on YouTube – if you like, please share).

By having these available, we managed to make the research and the online product come alive and people have been enchanted.

So I would encourage you to think about how you can use images to provide short-cuts for people to understand what you’re telling them, who you are, what you’re doing…

Being able to excite, arouse, intrigue, draw attention is an important skill to have and useful for all sorts of areas of life.

My six tips:

  1. Think about impact and using an image that from a distance has contrast and isn’t just all one colour (especially important for websites).
  2. For photos, get some inspiration from National Geographic – what do you respond to, what makes you go ‘Wow!’
  3. Think about the audience – will they want to see people in the image for example? Flick through the media outlets that you want to get picked up, look at the style of images they go for.
  4. Remember one fantastic image is worth more than three average images, but an average image is better than nothing
  5. Think about colours – here’s an interesting article exploring the colours of logos
  6. Excite – try and use an image that is different from the norm.

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