November 24, 2017

Experts, Tell a Visual Story

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

When you think of science, do you think of dry research articles, charts and graphs that take a good deal of explanation in order to get to a point? Or do you think of Neil DeGrasse Tyson explaining the Cosmos with the help of clear but sophisticated video and graphics? If it is your goal to connect with an audience of non-scientists, like a jury for example, then your choice ought to be for something closer to the latter. A science-educator like Tyson, who uses all the tools available, is in a better position to make the material not just informative, but engaging and emotional as well.

In a past post, I shared the example of a four-minute video from Tyson on the science of public understanding of science, specifically. That video nicely illustrates the thesis of a group of researchers from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia (Czaran, Wolski & Richardson, 2017). Their paper, like this post, probably should have been a video, because it makes the case that researchers should stretch themselves to step outside the typical forms and outlets of the academy and should tell the story of their research, and use modern media to do so. That advice to distill the research outcome to “short, relatable, digestible, and engaging visual products” applies to expert witnesses as well. This post shares a few of their conclusions, based on their 12-month review of a new service designed to encourage researchers to use audio-visual media to tell their research story as they apply to the testifying expert.

In bringing science to a general audience, the key is to find a story, and as the writers put it, to “tell it instead of talking about it.” That entails developing a narrative sequence, and finding an emotional connection. The stuff of expert testimony can be dry, but it can still be connected to something that a jury can relate to: fairness, accuracy, or the answer to a mystery, for example.

Often, the most reliable way to bridge that gap will be visual. Noting researchers’ need to “say less and show more,” the authors have a few observations that are worth calling out for experts.

 We Are Primed Toward the Visual

“We live in a visually-rich world,” the authors say, noting that YouTube is now the second most-visited website in the world. We are used to getting our information visually, and at increasing levels of sophistication. Based on what we know of a changing human attention span, it stands to reason that these visuals are “expected to be short and sharp.”

There is good reason to believe that these visual preferences apply just as much to science as to cat videos. Even among the scientists likely to read a publication called the New Journal of Physics, the authors cite research showing that articles that include video abstracts are significantly more likely to be viewed in comparison to the articles that rely on text alone.

But Scientists Can Be Visually Challenged

Academics are used to abstract analysis, and used to talking to other academics, or at least to students who aspire in the same direction. When physical or social scientists need to convey their ideas and their work beyond that circle, it can be a struggle. Naturally, these experts know that it is possible to use visual aids. But in a statement that could apply as much, or more, to in-court experts, they note, “It is surprising how many researchers consider visual materials as an afterthought.”

The visual components should be recognized at the outset, and that helps sensitize experts to the need to translate ideas and conclusions in visual terms, which helps to keep them simple and accessible. “Researchers need to get into the habit of considering possible visual outputs in the early stages of their research to enable them to start collecting relevant and engaging visual materials as their research progresses,” the authors note. “Collecting materials on an ongoing basis, i.e., capturing them, saving, and storing them in the highest possible resolution, creates a wealth of irreplaceable visual content to use in future media products.”

So Scientists Need Help

The less it seems like an area of science has a natural visual component, the more important it is to find one. The role of graphic designers is to help locate that visual potential that can supplement any kind of expert testimony. For that reason, experts should schedule a session with counsel and a designer in order to brainstorm and to flesh out ideas.

The authors recommend a four-phase model for developing graphics and animation that will help researchers tell the story of their research. The four phases are:

Scoping: What is the story and how can it be broadly translated into visual terms?

Development: What is the specific visual and textual content?

Release: How will that content be displayed and manipulated for the audience?

Review: What works and what does not?

When you’re working through that process, there is no substitute for having a fresh pair of eyes on the task, including help from a graphic designer, and perhaps a mock trial for testing the effectiveness.

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Other Posts on Expert Testimony: 

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Czaran, E., Wolski, M., & Richardson, J. (2017). Improving research impact through the use of media. Open Information Science1(1), 41-55.

Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license

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