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You Asked, We Answered: When to Use Visuals in Research Communication

I recently gave a presentation on the use of visuals in research communication. During the Q&A period, I got a really good question: How do you decide what information to present visually?

I shared my thoughts then, but on the *extremely small* chance you weren’t there to hear it live, I’m recapping it for you here.

This is an icon of an exclamation point inside of a sunburst shape.Visualize important information.

Humans are visual creatures. Images grab out attention, and they help us understand and remember information. If your audience were to see, understand, and remember only part of your communication,* you want that to be the important stuff rather than the minor details.

This is an icon showing a three-column list of items.Visualize big sets of numbers.

Human brains are terrible at making meaning from lists of numbers. What’s the most common number in the list? How do the numbers change over time? How do the numbers differ across groups? Your audience will have no clue unless you (A) boil all of those numbers down to summary statistics, like averages or counts, or (B) translate those numbers into data visualizations, like graphs.**

This is an icon of an abstract drawing of a woman's face.Visualize abstract information.

Sure, you could say your fetus weighs half an ounce and is two inches long, but isn’t it so much easier to think about it as lime-sized? Or, if you’d rather…Pluto may be 6 billion kilometers from the sun, but did you also know that Bill Nye the Science Guy is in way better shape than you are?

Just use visuals somewhere.

Experiments show that people remember information best when it is presented in both pictures and text. This means that your written documents should include images, and your presentation slides should generally pair images with (a SMALL amount of) text.

Have more questions about using visuals in your research communication products? Join us for our monthly Office Hour!

* Spoiler Alert: They ARE only going to see, understand, and remember part of your communication.

** Get more of my unsolicited opinions on this issue here.

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