Visual storytelling: Effective nonprofit infographics

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DRAW ME A STORY Recipe for Infographic Success

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DRAW ME A STORYRecipe for Infographic Success

Welcome and thank you for joining me for this final workshop on how to make infographics work for you.


Im going to start with the obvious.

Tell me if you dont feel this way some days: Were all drowning in information.

My co-worker found this statistic for me: The average American adult is exposed to 174 newspapers worth of information every single day.

We cant possibly process or retain all of it, so what happens?

We filter it. 1

To determine whether or not we ought to pay attention to a particular Facebook post, news story, tweet, or email, we give a quick scan to see how it relates to our lives.

Is it about a person or place or issue we connect to?

More often than not, if that thing is something you cant relate to, out it goes!

No matter how hard that nonprofit worked to produce that data meant to shock you into caring about their issue.2

Its all about connection. Making sense of data.

How? Through stories. Yes, this infographics session is about telling stories.

Because stories give meaning to factsand, in turn, facts support a story, and make it real in a different way.

Stories are how we make sense of the world.

We know connecting our issues to real peoples lives is more effective than reeling off a bunch of abstract facts to make our cases. 3

WERE VISUAL CREATURESCall me old, but Im still pained when I see infants staring at tablets and phones!

But, the point here is this: Stories are important (and these often entail just words), but visuals are equally important.

Humans are naturally visual creaturesapproximately 60% of our brains are dedicated to visual processing.

Maybe this is why you were interested in a workshop on infographics!

Were born being able to interpret visual cues, but have to learn language, and work much harder to decode letters and numbers than we do pictures.

Pictures are also remembered more easily than words.

Scientists call it the pictorial superiority effect.

Some of you may have heard me talk about this yesterday during the visual storytelling session.4

DUAL CODING THEORYScience tells us something else that may help explain the popularity of infographics.

Studies have shown that comprehension and retention goes up when we see words and pictures together.

Scientists call this dual coding theory. 5

DOES THIS WORK?But, this my friends, is the worst of the worst infographics out there.

Not to pick on the U.S. Military, but this is theirs.

They love Powerpoints, and this was on a slide deck that was made public and then circulated around the Internet as people laughed at theirwhat is the right phrase for this?

Ineffective communications?

I challenge you to find anything worse than this!

Not to worry, we are going to go into what makes a good infographic from here on out.6

Simplicity is the name of the game.

Anyone could draw this, even me! It only contains a couple of numbers and about 25 words. But it speaks volumes.

By using a familiar visualthe food pyramid, it has tapped into a story we already know: government recommendations about nutrition for optimal health. And then it contrasts that familiar story with information about the governments funding of crops that dont fit within its nutrition guidelines. The food pyramid and funding pyramid dont match!

That is the one, clear message they want you to take away from this graphic.

It was developed back in 2006, and, despite its inelegant design, was picked up by major newspapers and blogs including the New York Times.

It is still making the rounds online today. Because its powerful. You dont need to understand agricultural policy to grasp its meaning.

And that is what an effective infographic can do: connect new information to a story or value your audience already holds.

They couldve complicated this graphic by adding in additional charts about corn and soy subsidies, but that wouldve muddied the one simple message they wanted you to remember. 7

Heres another that is dead simple, but immensely powerful.

It puts one key fact from the campaign to fight coal exports through the Pacific Northwestthe fact that 48 million tons of coal would be shipped through Seattle every yearinto perspective by referencing familiar landmarks.

The graphics add meaning to the words and information, rather than simply illustrating them. 8

So, having looked at a couple infographics that work, its time to talk turkey.

I want to start off by sharing a case study that illustrates some best practices in infographic design and distribution, and then Ill go into the how-to. 9

This was Resource Medias first foray into infographic design, back in 2011.

It had been a year of extreme weather caused by changing climate.

And, since climate activists often struggle to bring climate impacts home to roost, so to speak, we decided to use the homiest day of the year, Thanksgiving, to relate extreme weather to peoples dinner plates and pocketbooks. 10

It was a wildly successful experiment.

Thanksgiving is notoriously a slow news time, so journalists are looking for juicy stories that are well packaged for publication.

As you can see, our messaging came through loud and clearmost headlines borrowed copy directly from the graphic and our accompanying press release.

How did we achieve this? 11

For one thing, we made it very easy for both traditional and online outlets to pick up the story.

We made the graphic available by PDF and JPEG for download, provided HTML embed code, sample tweets, and social media share links.

We did all of this on a free, easy to create website called a Weebly, and used the URL 12

SIZE MATTERSWe were also mindful of dimensions.

We wanted people to share the graphic on Facebook, by email, on their blogs and websites.

With an increase in mobile web use, we knew a lot of our audience might see this on a small screen, so we decided we wouldnt require a ton of zooming and scrolling.

It was easy to get the gist at a glance. 13

7 STEPS TO INFOGRAPHIC SUCCESSRECIPE FOR SUCCESSAfter doing a few of these, weve developed a seven step process we think sets organizations up for infographic success. 14

STEP 1: STRATEGIZEStep one is to take some time to strategize. Just as you would with any other communications effort.

Infographics often cost a fair bit of money, so its extra important to invest time at the front end to get clear on goals, audience, outreach plans, etc. 15GET CLEAR ON THE 4 WsWho?What? Why? How?

Here are the four questions that can help guide the strategy discussion.

We call them the four Ws even though one is an H

Well, How has a w in itthere you go!

16WHO are you trying to reach?

Who are you trying to reach?

This gets to audience.

Where do they live?

What do they care about?

Where do they spend time online?

What is your current connection to them, or best paths to reach them?

17WHAT do you want them to know and do?

What do you want them to know and do?

This is getting at your message (or story).

Again, you dont want to overwhelm them with detail, so you should narrow down what you want them to know, and focus on one or two key facts.

One or two!

Think back on that climate change / American slide I showed you.

That was not one or two facts!

This is also the time to consider a call to action.

What role can your audience play in your campaign, or how can they help support a solution?

18WHY should they care?

Why should they care?

Again, facts and figures arent going to move people.

We make decisions based on feeling, so your strategy session is the time to figure out which emotions will move your audience to action and what data is likely to trigger that emotion and help your audience connect your issue to their lives and inspire them to action. 19HOW will you reach them?

How will you reach them?

This is the 4th W, so to speak.

You need a distribution plan for your infographic.

Once youve identified your audience, you can start to map out the channels you can use to reach them.

That might be local press, blogs, your own social networks, or those of allied organizations.

And think here also about timing.

Ill go deeper into developing a media plan for your infographic a bit later.


STEP 2: COMPILE YOUR DATAStep 2 is about fact finding.

Or, if youre like many of our partners, fact winnowing.

You need hard data to create a true infographic, but you dont want to overwhelm with information. 21DOUBLE-CHECK CREDIBILITY

This probably goes without saying, but in this Wikipedia age, much of the information floating around the World Wide Web is unreliable.

And no one wants to publish an infographic only to find some of the underlying information is incorrect.

So check and double-check that your sources are credible, and contain the most recent information.


Then, dont ask for people to take your wordcite those credible, neutral, high profile sources.

We love to use Government and Academic figures in our infographics where possible because opinion research shows those sources are typically highly trusted. 23CRUNCH THE NUMBERS

While numbers like 6 degrees of temperature change or 5 billion bushels of corn might be meaningful to your resident issue experts, the average person needs to have those facts translated into something they can wrap their brain around.

In the case of the biofuels infographic above that we created for a project, we wanted to illustrate the impact of ethanol production on food availability.

So, rather than focusing on the 5 billion and 412 million figures, we talked about the amount of corn it takes to fill up a tank of gas, and how that would feed a person for a year. 24

STEP 3: WRITE YOUR STORY Your goals and strategy should inform your concept development.

It may be tempting to just gather your data and hand it off to a designer, but the discipline of writing out your message, or story, is important.

Remember where we started: humans use story to interpret facts and make sense of the world.

And were not going to persuade people to care with datawe have to inspire them by connecting our issues to their lives.

That data has to tell a story.25Pacific Northwest ports are poised to become the link between coal supplies in the American West and demand in Asian markets. Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT), which would be built near Bellingham, would export 48 million tons per year, making it North America's largest coal port.Coal would be hauled from mines to port by BNSF Railways. 18 daily coal trains (9 full, 9 empty). Each 1.5 mile long train, comprising about 150 cars, would shuttle between the mines and the port, effectively rendering the rails a nonstop conveyor belt for coal. Coal would be dumped into huge open heaps and stored at the port site. Some of the worlds largest and most polluting ships would make over 950 transits per year in waters already crowded with oil tankers. COAL EXPORT FACTSFor example

Here are some coal train facts we took from the website

Lots of good information here.

Enough to alarm anyone that lives in the Pacific Northwest26

But if you threw them all into a graphic, youd end up with something like this.


This was actually put out by industry.

Its just a collection of facts and figures with some charts and a map thrown in.

No story. 27

Contrast that with this wonderful Sightline infographic.

So wonderful that Im using it twice in one presentation!

They have one key fact they want to convey.

A visual that really needs no preamble for their Seattle audience.

Now, thats a clear message. 28TRY A HEADLINE OR TWEETPicture it: 8 million tons of coal swamp Portlands downtown

Infographic: 8M tons of coal would fill Willamette and bury Wells Fargo Center. #nocoaltrains

Your infographic message should be crisp enough to be conveyed in a headline or tweet.

Remember the Extreme Thanksgiving graphic I showed you earlier?

That one worked, and generated such on-message media coverage because the message was so simple and clear.

To test whether yours is social media and press friendly, try writing your own headlines and tweets.

Here, to shake things up with my favorite infographic du jour, were looking at the Portland version of the Sightline coal export graphic.


Now that youve got your message clear, its time to get visual!30

The average attention span only is about 8 seconds.

That is not long enough to digest those complicated infographics with 13 different data sets included.

It means that shapes that we can easily grasp, like the food pyramid I started with.

Or these two: a pill bottle and human body, are a great shortcut to comprehension.

We see this kind of graphic and immediately know we wont have to work too hard to decode them. 31CHOOSE VISUALS THATEvoke shared values or familiar places Illustrate scale, sequence, or timeContrast two possible outcomes

Rather than just using bar charts, pie charts and other standard data visualization tools, we like visuals that speak for themselves.

Consider this sea level rise graphic.

You dont even really need copy or labels to understand what its trying to communicate:

Our famous cities will soon be underwater.

First Venice, then Los Angeles, and then San Francisco and lower Manhattan32

From Its not a done deal! by Ramsey Hart on the AJAX mine33

From Its not a done deal! by Ramsey Hart34

While this extension for chrome can be a little pesky (it is enabled by default, but is easy enough to disable in extensions, or pause) I think it can be helpful in communicating large numbers in terms people can understand, as the website puts it:Dictionary of Numbers is an award-winning Google Chrome extension that tries to make sense of numbers you encounter on the web by giving you a description of that number in human terms. Like a dictionary describes words you don't know in terms you do, Dictionary of Numbers puts quantities you're unfamiliar with in terms you can understand. Because "8 million people" means nothing, but "population of New York City" means everything


If youre working with a professional designer, you might provide all your thoughts on message, concept, visuals, and distribution channels in a brief.

And then, its time for them to put pen to paper. 36

ASK FOR A FEW CONCEPT SKETCHESBefore our designer begins laying out the graphic in a design program, we like to ask for a few concept sketches.

These are from a building benchmarking graphic we worked on in San Francisco. 37

CONSIDER DIMENSIONSAgain, size matters.

If youre going to be sharing on Facebook, maximum dimensions are 600 dots per inch by 600 dots per inch.

And horizontal or square graphics work better than long skinny ones, the one on the right being a case in point.

Think also about mobile web browsing and email viewing.

If you try to cram too much information into a graphic, people on small screens wont be able to make sense of them. 38STEP 6: SERVE IT UP

Once youve selected a concept and your designer has completed the design, youre ready to start outreach. 39CREATE A MEDIA PLAN

While infographics can have a long life online (remember that food pyramid one has been around since 2006!), we like to time the launch around some event or milestone that will make reporters take notice.

Typically, while the designer is working on the graphic, we are working on a media plan.

We treat infographic releases almost like report releases:

We typically pitch them to reporters and bloggers,

Distribute them via our own or partner networks,

Create social media content thats easy for others to shareusing timely and relevant hashtags and keywords. 40TIMINGWHATS THE NEWSHOOK?

So, Ill review a few key considerations to cover when developing your release plan.

First is timing.

If you want the press to cover this, you have to give them a plausible story line.

And often, that can be a campaign milestone, a decision point, or an event.

In the case of our Extreme Thanksgiving infographic, of course, the hook was Thanksgiving Day. 41PRESS AND BLOGGER OUTREACH

Next you want to develop a plan for press and blogger outreach.

This should be informed in part by your goals for the release.

Is it about reaching decisionmakers, voters, or consumers?

Does it apply mostly to a single geography?

You also need to factor in newsworthiness and be realistic about targets.

Dont neglect local and online outlets.

While The New York Times and Washington Post are incredibly difficult, your local newspaper, public radio station, or community and issue blogs may be equally likely to reach your target audiences. 42SOCIAL MEDIA

Social media, is, of course, a key channel for infographics.

People love to share good ones on Facebook, via Twitter, even Instagram and Tumblr.

To make sharing easy, develop template language for each platform, and share it with your staff, allies, and supporters. 43PARTNER/SUPPORTER ENGAGEMENT

Which brings me to my last point.

An infographic release is a great time to engage your project partners and individual supporters.

If youre a member of issue-specific listservs, like the WMAN listserv, by all means enlist the help of other groups with similar missions to help get the message out.

Weve found most partner networks to be incredibly generous about content sharing, in part because every organization now has so many channels to manage that were all always looking for great multimedia content thats of interest to our communities. 44DEVELOP A STANDALONE WEBPAGE

As noted for the Extreme Thanksgiving graphic, we think it works best when the graphic has its own webpage with an easy to remember URL.

This is an interactive infographic we helped the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy create to show how different cities stack up on energy efficiency.

It has historically been a traditional report card, but this graphic got a lot more traction because it was more dynamic. 45MAKE SHARING EASY

Again, if you want people to help move your infographic around the web, make it easy for them by providing social share links right on the page where your infographic lives.

If you are so inclined, you could even include tweets and Facebook posts there, too.

If you dont want to take this step, at least provide the tweet and Facebook post language when youre emailing it out to project partners and allies, so they can help promote it using your message with minimal effort. 46STEP 7: TRACK AND EVALUATE

Since infographics cost considerable time and money, it makes sense to try to measure the return on your investment.

There are a couple of ways we like to track and evaluate their effectiveness. 47CHECK YOUR WEB ANALYTICS

First, if youve taken our advice and created a standalone webpage for your infographic, you can track traffic to the page over time, see who is referring visitors

(whether its newspaper websites, partners, your own social networks, emails, etc.).

And you can even see what keywords people are using to find the graphic via search. 48USE BITLY.COM FOR TRACKABLE LINKS

Since youll hopefully have project partners and supporters sharing your infographic all over the social web, I recommend using to shorten your links and facilitate tracking.

Bitly will show you when clicks happen, and also where, on Twitter, Facebook, etc. 49PAY ATTENTION TO THE PRESS

Finally, press coverage is a good barometer to check if your message or story was clear and timely.

If your graphic doesnt generate much press, its time for a debrief to consider whether the subject was newsworthy enough, whether the release was timed well, you targeted the right journalists, etc.

And dont neglect online media.

Blogs have tremendous reach these days, and bloggers are often very eager for visual content!50 TOP 10 TIPSGet clear on goalsCompile your data, check, and citeTranslate big numbers into human termsKeep it simpleUse graphics that tell a story at a glance

So, just to reiterate:

Get clear on your goalsCompile your data, double-check it and cite your sourcesTranslate big numbers into human termsKeep it simple!Use graphics that tell a story at a glance

51 TOP 10 TIPS, CONTINUED6. Create a media plan7. Make social sharing easy8. Time strategically9. Allow for easy downloads and embeds10. Track results with Google Analytics and Bitly

6. Create media plan

7. Make social sharing easy

8. Time your release strategically

9. Allow for easy downloads and embeds

10. And last, but not least, track your results with Google Analytics and, so you know what your return on investment is.52QUESTIONS? IDEAS?

Feel free to follow up with me:[email protected]