by, Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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Anyone who has tried to share information with others, either in a presentation or a written document, knows how difficult it can be to provide information in an engaging manner. The classic charts and tables of data that are used extensively often take a learning curve to decipher properly. Written explanations of the information can get long-winded and will lose readers who often skim through for the main points. So how do we capture the interest of our audience while ensuring the pertinent information is passed along?
A few years ago when I worked in the world of educational research, I was stuck in this quandary of trying to find the best way to share information that often is presented in an academic style. While academic language fits perfectly into an academic journal, it did not work for the audiences I was working with. When the academic style was used, I found myself spending the majority of my time in the presentation explaining the findings and what the charts meant, rather than working with the group on strategies and ideas to address the findings in the data. I needed to find a way to break down the academic side of report writing and presenting into methods that could be easily digestible by any audience.
Through frustration, I began to seek out new methods and then remembered a series of Wordles that were hung on the walls of the school where I used to teach. Wordles are visual depictions of a series of words as seen here:
Wordles are developed through the free website www.wordle.net. The Wordle seen above was a visual depiction of all of the words that survey participants used in response to the question: What resources do students at your school need most? The larger the word is in the visual depiction the more often that term was used by the participants, while the smaller words mean that fewer participants used this word in response. I could have taken a typical approach of showing the percentages of teachers who answered each word in a large data table. However, these charts do not connect with the audience, particularly in a presentation format.
When I first began using Wordles in my reports and presentations, other academic researchers laughed and thought I was kind of crazy. These academics would ask “Why change the way we have presented information for so many years?” and “Don’t you know you are an academic and this format is not very academic?” I wanted to yell out, “YES, you are right, this isn’t very academic! That’s the point.” As I continued to use Wordles, I noticed how much they resonated with my audience during presentations. School leadership teams were mesmerized by the actual words that their stakeholders were using to describe the areas that we were studying. Many of the teams asked for digital copies of the Wordles so they could distribute them out to their stakeholders or to post on meeting room walls. Other school leaders used them in their own presentations to school boards and businesses used them as marketing tools.
Despite the initial concerns of academic colleagues, Wordles were catching on in my work, most especially because they were visually eye-catching, easy to understand, yet full of key data. Ever since finding Wordles, I have been using them in my work as a researcher, professional development coach, and leadership consultant. I use them in reports as well as presentations because they connect to my audience and provide incredible fodder for conversations that can lead to greater individual and team development, and ultimately to making a greater difference in the lives of others.