The Common Craft Blog

This blog is where we announce new videos & talk about the power of explanation & the change it can create. 

Antidotes for Information Overload

Posted by: leelefever on March 20, 2014- 1:30pm


Categories: Art of Explanation, article, data, Einstein, freud, research, Speaking

Later this spring I will be speaking at an event for institutional researchers called the AIR Forum ("AIR" is the Association for Institutional Research). In speaking with the organizers, I've learned that the audience is very data-oriented and sometimes find it difficult to make their findings understandable to others. It will be my challenge to help them become better explainers. 

In preparation for the event, I wrote an article that was recently published in their newsletter that focuses on antidotes for information overload. 

Here are a couple of excerpts from the article:

On the diminishing returns of more data:

From the perspective of a researcher, the truth is in the data. By sharing the details of the data and accounting for exceptions and confounders, for example, researchers can present accurate and useful information that stands up to the questions and analyses of their peers.
Within the insulated world of research, this can work and can be rewarded. But outside of the research world, a different perspective is required. The audience is typically not in a position to poke holes in your assumptions. They don’t necessarily care about the exceptions. They only want to understand why they should care. Details won’t help this audience.
Ask yourself this question when you’re communicating data: Is this information for my peers or for another audience? If it’s another audience, you must switch gears and realize that more details and data come with diminishing returns. Different audiences have different needs.

On the imprecise, but effective nature of analogies:

Sigmund Freud famously said, “It is true, analogies decide nothing, but they make one feel more at home.” I love that quote because it recognizes the inherent problem with analogies—they are imprecise. It is rarely possible to find an analogy that stands up to the impeccable standards of many researchers. But are they useful and powerful in relating ideas? I think so.
Consider some of the great scientific discoveries, like Einstein’s theory of relativity. In my experience, there are two ways to understand it. The first is to have an education in physics. With the proper training, we can see the theory’s details at work. For physicists, this is likely the most powerful way to understand it. But everyone else requires something different—the details don’t work.
Thankfully, Einstein often used an analogy that provided a layperson an imprecise, yet useful way to see the big picture of relativity. The most famous is likely the train analogy, where relativity and simultaneous events are explained using people, lightning, and trains—all real and familiar things. This provides a way for non-physicists to develop a basic, yet imprecise understanding that could lead to more learning.
While you may not need to explain relativity, you may find that simple, familiar examples and analogies can be used to help your audience see why data matter and why they should care.  

Read the entire article here.

Do you have ideas for avoiding information overload? Leave comment - we'd love to hear from you...

A Little Inaccuracy Can Go A Long Way

Posted by: leelefever on March 12, 2014- 9:57am


Categories: accuracy, Art of Explanation, freud, johnson, quote

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was a prolific English author who is most known for A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). He contributed extensively to what we know about writing and literature. Recently I came across a quote of his that really struck a chord with me:

"In all pointed sentences, some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness."

Put another way: you can be concise or you can be accurate, but rarely both. 

Indeed, the need or predilection to present information that is technically accurate is one the biggest barriers to clear explanations. A reason is it such a problem is that we're trained and rewarded in many parts of our lives for the very same accuracy that makes us less understandable in other parts.

Think about it this way... You work in a university, hospital or research lab where technical accuracy is paramount. Lives or at least your reputation may depend on your ability to be very specific and technically detailed in your work. But when you go to a dinner party and someone asks about your job, you find it difficult to make it understandable. You think of abstractions or analogies, but nothing seems right because they're essentially inaccurate representations. You've been trained and rewarded your whole life to be this way. Inaccuracy doesn't seem to be an option. 

If understanding is a priority, you have to be comfortable with some degree of inaccuracy. Much like Mr. Johnson said, you sometimes have to trade accuracy for understanding and that means letting go of some of the details and focusing on the big picture. It means using slightly inaccurate analogies to powerfully relate an idea. As Sigmund Freud put it:

"Analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home." 

In an explanation, the goal is to make people care, so that they'll become interested in the details and be motivated to keep learning. A little inaccuracy may have to be traded to make your audience feel more at home. 

Kurt Vonnegut's Shape of Stories

Posted by: leelefever on March 5, 2014- 8:19am


Categories: infographic, Kurt Vonnegut, Story, storytelling, visualization, youtube

As the OpenCulture blog explains, Kurt Vonnegut once proposed a master's thesis at the University of Chicago about the shape of stories. The idea was rejected because it "was so simple and looked like too much fun." That sounds familiar. People have asked us before if our style of video production is appropriate for serious subjects. 

Open Culture writes:

The elegant simplicity and playfulness of Vonnegut’s idea is exactly its enduring appeal. The idea is so simple, in fact, that Vonnegut sums the whole thing up in one elegant sentence: “The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.” 

What a neat idea. Here's how Vonnegut himself explains the shape of stories: 

Graphic designer Maya Eilam made this idea into an awesome infographic:

Kurt Vonnegut - The Shapes of Stories

The next time you see an opportunity to explain an idea in the form of a story, think about this simple idea: stories have shapes that we can visualize. Where does your story begin and end? Where does it go in-between?

Common Craft Cut-Outs: Re-Imagined

Posted by: leelefever on February 27, 2014- 9:34am


Categories: business, Cut-Outs, Images, ourwork, powerpoint, visuals

Whether it's PowerPoint presentations, videos or blog posts, the use of high-quality visuals have become an essential part of communicating clearly. This is why we've invested in our library of Common Craft Style images - what we call "Cut-outs". 

We recently made it much easier to browse, search and download Common Craft Cut-outs and use them in visual projects. We currently offer over 1,400 high resolution images in .PNG format.

Common Craft Cut-Out Library

All Common Craft memberships come with access to Cut-outs, including our DIY plan, which starts $49 per year

Questions? Find details and an FAQ or download a sample Cut-out