Clear Communication Matters

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Students’ storylines created for EGR381 Design for Understanding between 2017-2020. 

When people think about information design, they often think about the creation of information graphics or visual explanations, but not so much about the presentation of ideas or the creation of stories (e.g. PPT or PDF presentations). But, stories also fall into the type of projects information designers do. As with any information design output, well-defined structured, well-supported argument, engaging storytelling, and clear communication are essential components for effective understanding and knowledge transfer.

When one of these components fails, even the greatest of the ideas can be misunderstood and, thus, fail. I witnessed this scenario recently during some of my students’ final presentations. Although they have done a terrific job throughout the semester, gathered large data sets and thoroughly analyzed them, their presentations did not reflect the same level of depth. They look great, but the argument was unclear, the storyline disorganized, and the flow was weak. As I was familiar with the projects, I knew half of what the students were trying to say, but external stakeholders, who were hearing about the projects for the first time, walked away with many questions and gaps in the story.

Today almost everyone needs to create a story to share work in progress to clients, explain new concepts to a class, or report research to stakeholders. As we spend more time doing these tasks online, creating clear, effective and engaging presentations has become a priority. In this post, I share three steps–not related to “visual design”–I teach to my Design for Understanding students for creating a visual story.

What are Visual Stories


Visual stories are explanatory presentations that combine Dan Roam‘s vertical and horizontal storytelling framework with Nancy Duarte’s concept of storytelling. You can create a visual story to help convey a deeper understanding of a topic, reveal unknown information, uncover needs, or make areas for improvement evident. This type of story falls in between multi-page reports and a play. The former tends to be exhaustive with the main message communicated primarily through text and complemented with graphics; and the latter communicates through dramatic dialogue, combining words and acting.

Visual stories combine characteristics from both formats: they have a clear narrative and claims are supported by data and evidence, but also include a human element that makes the message more understandable and relatable to the audience. Communicating the message in a way that is familiar to the audience, like through analogies, helps put the audience first. Similarly, the story delivery is as important as the deck itself. In other words, a visual story is not a traditional PPT deck; a visual story combines humanized content, evidence and storytelling to create a unique and memorable experience.

Three Steps to Create Visual Stories

Before clicking on the PPT app or creating a new file, go through the following steps:

  1. Story Goal: Define what you will explain in the story (why are we here?, e.g., problem, concept), then identify possible ways in which the topic could be made clearer (e.g. ideas, solutions, research findings), and get familiar with the audience (who are they?). Also, articulate a call to action (what do you need from them?).
  2. Story Outline: Create an outline (in Word or on your notebook!) to indicate the general flow and key ideas you want to include in the story—this step helps define the narrative, determine the sequence of ideas, and identify the type of data needed to support each claim/idea.
  3. Storyline & Design Rules: Create a storyboard (each frame illustrates the content and key message of each slide) to visualize the storyline of the presentation, and define basic design rules (color palette, font families, types of imagery) that you will use to visually display content. This step helps identify what content will be explained in each slide, how it will be displayed, and what is needed to make the story relatable to the audience. The initial storyline changes throughout the process, but it gives initial direction and helps move from words to visuals.

Going through these steps in a deliberate way helps to “slow down”, as Garr Reynolds describes it, and critically think about the topic, objectives, key messages, and audience of the visual story. First “you’ve got to get your idea out of your head and on the wall so you can see it, share it, make it better. We’ve got to see the details and subtract and add (but mostly subtract) where needed.” Create a first story draft, only after you have completed the above steps. 

Reynolds, Garr, 2008. Presentation Zen. Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. New Riders.

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