H697 Listening with Your Eyes and Ears

Part of our reading this week was to watch two TED talks, each only about 15 minutes long. One was Larry Lessig about laws that restrict us from being a read/write culture to a read only one, and the other was Hans Rosling talking about erroneous assumptions about the third world and the need to get data out where people can see it. These ideas, of the need for freedom to remix and of getting publicly-funded data out where the public can use it, are really important. But they’re not what I’m going to talk about (today).

I spent the presentations paying attention to the content of the visual half. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t listening (because I definitely was), but the two were very different and yet both made good visual impact. And, for the record, I’m one of those people who does much better if I have something to look at in addition to listen to (which is why I don’t do well at symphony concerts).

Rosling, who I watched first, has wonderful data visualizations. He’s clearly using some sort of software that runs on Windows machines, but whatever it is I like it. The ability to see change over time is key, especially for historians, and the program allows you either just to watch the datapoints move, or to have them move with trails so you can see where they’ve been. I especially liked the ability to break down each data set into its composite parts, to show the spread within a group. I’m not sure that the data visualizations would have made nearly as much sense if Rosling hadn’t been narrating the entire time. However, the speed of the visualizations matched the speed of his narration, which meant there was never a real gap in the information I was hearing and the information I was seeing.

Lessig’s visuals were predominantly text, reversed text at that, using a funky, distressed typewriter font, which was simultaneously retro and slightly dystopian (not sure if he was trying to emphasize a connection to the past with the typewriter or warn about the future with the distressing). The words he put on the screen made me think of highlighting, capturing only the key words or phrases instead of complete sentences.

a white chicken

Chicken. Photo by me.

It definitely served to emphasize the words he wanted the audience to focus on, keeping everyone (who was paying attention) on the same track. One of my favourite moments was the back and forth between the video clip of the airplanes and the still image of the chicken; the repeated quick transitions between the two made the connection between them — the Supreme Court casethat Lessig uses as an example — really stick.

Both of the presentations had a strong connection between what was said and what was seen. We’ve spent the semester focusing on the connection between message and design as it applies to the web. I think these talks were a good reminder that the lessons carry over into other areas. I’ve heard many complaints about poor use of PowerPoint (in the business world, at professional conferences, in the classroom), and many times it seems to me that the complaints distill to a lack of connection between visual and aural content, or very poor presentation of one or the other (or both). By applying basic principles of design, we can be much more effective speakers. Or at least slightly less boring.

This week I commented on Jeri’s post