The importance of data visualization for communicators

Like many popular expressions, “a picture is worth a thousand words” didn’t enter mainstream vernacular through empirical study. In fact, putting the value at a thousand words is an understatement: research from MIT has shown that 90% of the information transmitted to our brain is visual. Research further shows that in a digital age when people spend less time reading articles and more time “scanning,” using imagery to complement verbal and written work is essential to keep readers’ attention.

It isn’t just photos that make a difference: Search Logistics found that infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than a written article. Visualizing data doesn’t only benefit readers, either — it's an important tool for communicators to understand how to turn their research into consumer-friendly writing, not to mention that it can help researchers themselves understand their own data. 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy Science Public Outreach Community (SPOC), some of the best ways to utilize data visualization are to: 

  • contextualize trends and patterns over time;
  • present data sets with a large number of interacting parts; and
  • emphasize scale.

One of data visualization’s most important functions is to connect abstract concepts to the real world. As an example of effective data visualization — while you may know that the Mariana Trench is nearly seven miles underneath the sea, it’s difficult to comprehend since the metrics are so out of scale with our daily lives. MetaBallStudios on YouTube used data visualization to great effect in video format, putting ocean depth in familiar context by measuring it against well-known landmarks like the Burj Khalifa or Mount Everest. 

From a purely statistical point of view, data visualization is a helpful tool to hook readers. But with trillions of gigabytes of data at your potential readers’ fingertips, one of its most important functions is to answer the basic question of every consumer: “Why should I care?”

For more tips from SPOC, find information about their Best Practices newsletter. If you have questions about how to use data visualization to communicate research to your audience, please reach out to the University Relations Public Relations team at