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As a team of scientists and scientific illustrators, we’ve worked alongside many researchers who try their very hardest to communicate through visuals. Yet, despite best intentions, we often see common misconceptions that undermine the effectiveness of the visuals we encounter. We cover 3 common misconceptions here, and we’ll cover more in future posts.

We work through strategies to overcome these misconceptions and make more effective visuals in our S.P.A.R.K. online course so be sure to check it out!

Misconception 1: The more complex my visuals are, the smarter I’ll look

Researchers often want their audiences to know that the topic they’re studying is extremely complex. The desire to get this point across can lead to the creation of complex pictures, pieces of writing, and verbal explanations. This approach hampers clear communication and can easily lose audiences.

Indeed, the audience can lose the entire point of a presentation thanks to the complexity of its visuals. There might be too much information to process at once and the audience will be overwhelmed. The audience will come away from such a presentation knowing nothing more than that the topic is complex.

This does not make the presenter look smart. Instead it suggests that the presenter may be no better at making sense of the complexity of the topic than the audience is.

So what makes a presenter look smart? Plotting a clear path through the complexity. By focusing only on the salient points, a presenter will make it far more obvious that they are on top of their game. Simple, focused visuals make it obvious that a presenter is capable of distilling complexity into clarity.

Learn how choosing the proper path pattern can improve a technical visual

Misconception 2: You can use the same visuals for all audiences

Different audiences come to your topic with different levels of understanding and context. So, once you’ve decided on your message, you must make sure that your visual is tailored to your target audience.

For scientific audiences, you’ll be able to retain some complexity and use some standard technical representations. But for broader audiences, you may need to come up with more creative ways to communicate. Remember, non-scientific audiences probably don’t have the required context and background to understand a technical image. It’s not that they’re incapable of understanding your message. You just need to present it in a familiar way.

For example, let’s say you’re presenting data from your latest research paper on plant genetics. In your work, you’ve discovered that putting 3 different genes into a certain type of plant alters the number of leaves it grows. You’ll be giving live presentations of this data to 2 very different audiences:

  1. A group of other plant researchers
  2. Sixth graders who you’re trying to get interested in science

In your paper, the figure showing your data may look something like this:

Sketch of a graph that might be included in a scientific paper about the effects of individual genes on the number of leaves produced by a plant. The x-axis contains the names of the genes manipulated in the experiment while the y-axis shows the number of leaves produced by each plant at 31 days post germination. This figure is very information dense and might be difficult to interpret quickly.
Picture credit: Tyler J. Ford

Now, this might be appropriate for a published research paper where your audience can carefully walk through the graph and reference the text to better understand the details. But your fellow researchers won’t have the ability to do this during a live presentation. So, even for the audience of other plant researchers, you might want to limit your field-specific terminology, and highlight your main point. Here we’ve removed the specific gene names, simplified the axes, and highlighted the most exciting result.

Sketch of a graph that might be included in a research talk about the effects of individual genes on the number of leaves produced by a plant. The x-axis contains the simplified names of genes manipulated in the experiment while the y-axis shows the number of leaves produced by each plant. A red box highlights the most important result - that manipulating "gene 1" results in the greatest number of leaves.
Picture credit: Tyler J. Ford

For your sixth grade audience, it might be a good idea to throw out the graph altogether. Instead you can simply show your outcome–the effect on the plants of different genes. You might only show what the most effective gene does. Your goal is to get the sixth graders excited, so you might as well keep their eyes on the most exciting result!

Sketch of 2 plants side-by-side. The plant on the left only has 2 leaves while the plant on the right has 9 leaves.
Picture credit: Tyler J. Ford

This is an extreme example, but the point remains true for all of your pictures—you must tailor your pictures and their levels of complexity to your target audience. We talk about this a little more in misconception 3.

Learn how to use best practices in Data Visualization to make comparisons easier

Misconception 3 – Simplifying is “dumbing down” the science

This is perhaps the most pervasive and problematic of the 3 misconceptions we cover in this post. When you have limited time to provide detail and an audience with little background on your topic, you must always focus on a “simpler” message. This does not mean that you say things that are untrue, but that you relay the “big picture” message as opposed to all the tiny details.

Of course, detail is the heart of science, but when you’re introducing new content to an audience that is unfamiliar with it, they will be prone to distraction. While an audience of experts might be able to tuck the details into their back pocket and continue following your story, you will always need to pull back on the details for a less expert audience. With non-experts, you’re helping them find the forest through the trees as opposed to doing a deep dive on any individual tree.

This means that you’ll have to take some time to think about who your audience is and what they already know. This will enable you to pinpoint the level of detail, the “sweet spot” (as we say in S.P.A.R.K.) that is appropriate for them.

For example, you don’t have to make your pictures literal in order to communicate important concepts to your audience. Instead, you can be symbolic.

Let’s say you’re talking about the specificity of molecular binding. The picture below on the left might be appropriate for an audience familiar with biochemical representations and concepts. But the picture on the right—a purely symbolic one—might be much more appropriate and successful getting the point across to an audience unfamiliar with biochemical representations and concepts. 

Picture showing the difference between portraying a scientific concept literally vs symbolically. On the left side of the picture, there is a molecular representation of an enzyme with its substrate. The image uses an arrow to show that the substrate will fit into the enzyme, but it is not obvious how well it will fit given the complex molecular depictions of the enzyme and the substrate. The same concept of a substrate exquisitely fitting into an enzyme is portrayed symbolically on the right side of the picture. Here we see a key (the substrate) fitting into a lock (the enzyme). This image makes the concept clear even if it doesn't have the molecular detail of the image on the left.
Picture Credit: Picture as Portal®

Remember, all pictures are “representations” of something, not the real thing itself. So it’s always a matter of choosing the best representation for a particular audience that will be most meaningful for them.

Learning to move beyond these 3 misconceptions about visuals will dramatically improve your communications. It will make the difference between conveying only the idea that “this thing is complex” and conveying “this thing is complex but we know a little about it and can do something with that knowledge.” Simplifying enables your audience to learn SOMETHING from you. In the end, that’s what you want.

We provide much more advice on tailoring your content to your audience in our S.P.A.R.K. online course so be sure to check it out!


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