Search engines love them, and we humans do too. Infographics can be a powerful communication tool, helping us take in large sets of information quickly.
They can also fail miserably, causing confusion and obscuring the message they are meant to convey.
One way to make sure you create engaging infographics that get your message across effectively is to use storytelling techniques.
Humans love stories. Our brains are just wired that way. In fact, research by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner shows that stories are up to 22 times more memorable than blank sets of facts.
Ours is an information age. We have never had so much information at our fingertips, but information is useless unless you can make sense of it. That’s what storytelling does: it contextualises information, giving it meaning.
If you use storytelling tactics to help you give context to the information you need, or want, to visually convey to your audience, you will create powerful infographics. Also, your infographics will be able stand alone, telling your story by themselves in a captivating manner.
The elements of story
Successful narratives raise and resolve human anxieties. They present us with a protagonist and a plot that raises a problem or challenge that the protagonist must overcome. In the overcoming there is a transformation that resolves the issue raised.
When you plan your infographic, make sure that each graphic incorporates all four elements of story.
The protagonist is the main character, around whom the story revolves. When you are planning an infographic, it is helpful to think of your reader as the protagonist, if the data allows that. What are their wants and needs? How will the data you want to convey influence them? If not, then you are the protagonist – the person with a story to tell.
Every story raises a challenge for the protagonist to overcome, something they need to do. What issue does the data raise? If you present the data as a challenge that needs resolution you create a sense of drama that captures the attention. How the protagonist overcomes the challenge is the plot, and how they change while doing that is the transformation.
For example, let’s say you have a lot of data on water consumption in your municipal area. You could present this in a straight bar graph showing water consumption over time. Or you could show your reader (protagonist) how water consumption leads to rising water tariffs (plot and challenge) and give them some tips on how to change their behaviour and save water, thereby saving money and reducing their ecological footprint (transformation).
How to find a story in a large set of data
So you have a huge data set at your fingertips, but you’re not sure what any of it means? Use exploration tools such as spreadsheets to sift through the data, looking for patterns. Generate quick visualisations as you go.
Keep an open mind and let the data reveal patterns – don’t decide on a theory and then look for the data to back up your theory. Also, bookmark interesting data or examples of outliers – you may unearth interesting side stories that way.
Whether you have a small, simple set of data to convey, or are dealing with “big data” – an ever-growing set of information so large that traditional data management tools can’t cope with it – planning is imperative.
Before you create an infographic, make sure you know:
- What your data is saying (not what you want it to say)
- What you want to say about your data
- What your audience needs to hear (not what they want to hear)
Then decide what type of graphic will best convey your message. You want something simple, easy to understand and engaging.
When you plan your infographic, consider:
- The type of graphic you will use
- The kind of text you will use
- What colours to use
- The type of labelling you will use
- What other copy you will need to properly tell the story
Get it right
Key to any good infographic is that it accurately conveys the data that tells your story. Make sure that your graphic:
- Tells the story clearly
- Has a linear sequence (this is how people think)
- Accurately depicts proportions
- Compares comparable things
- Is an appropriate visual metaphor
- Acknowledges the source of any information presented
A word on labelling
Labelling infographics is a fine art. Your labels tell your story just as much as your images. They are there to provide context and to help your audience easily absorb the data you are giving them. That doesn’t mean they should be deadpan – get creative, but not so creative that meaning is obscured.
Also, there is a fine line between too many labels and too few. Label so that the story is immediately and obviously evident to the reader, but don’t label everything in sight.
Finally, always accurately and fully accredit the source of your information. Some in your audience might like to read further.
Less is more
Don’t create infographics that are overbusy and try to convey several messages in one image. While there is no hard and fast rule, remember less is more and consider creating two or three (or more) graphics, each imparting one message.