Show, Don’t Tell: Contemporary Storytelling for Government

By Jerry Silverman

We change. The way we learn, the way we work, and the way we communicate—these things are all in flux. But one thing never changes. People always like a good story.

Today, we’re seeing a move away from dense text documents and lengthy spreadsheets. We’re seeking ways to communicate with people that take advantage of the technologies everyone has at their disposal, like responsive websites, faster browsers, and broader bandwidth. At the same time, we want to produce stories that engage people with images and turn dry statistics into memorable messages.

Of course, we’re talking about infographics. Infographics can grab a viewer’s attention and communicate complex information in a way that anyone can understand. Government agencies have a particular need to use infographics, because they have to serve all their constituents, including those who lack the time, interest, or language skills to tackle a written report.

Government agencies have great stories to tell

At the most pragmatic level, government agencies need to demonstrate their work product to secure their budget for the next year. At the highest level, they have important information to share with their constituencies.

The types of information agencies have to share, the reasons they need to share them, and the channels through which they deliver them are particularly well served by infographics.

The power of pictures

Data is impartial. That is the beauty of scientific evidence; it has no slant. But content does have a slant. Without one, content has no reason to exist; if there is no message, there is no point. Layout, palette, font, and other elements of design influence how the consumer engages with the story.

A content creator’s job is to find the message in the evidence and craft it into a call to action. But a call to action is a tricky thing. Insert it too soon and trust is eroded. Insert it too late and it loses impact. Think of the entire infographic as a call to action, one that starts with a headline that draws in a viewer and then combines logic and emotion to construct a position that culminates in one unavoidable conclusion.

And throughout, the content has to mirror the audience.

Viewers want to see themselves and their interests in the content they consume. A successful infographic allows individuals to recognize themselves in the data. That’s where the power of the infographic lies—in its ability to turn streams of numbers into a story that motivates people.

Truth in numbers is now truth in pictures

The US Department of Energy collects a lot of information. That information goes into reports, like this 90-page document on wind technologies. The report is loaded with charts and tables. They’re visual, but they’re not engaging, and especially not for a general audience. But when the DoE transformed the key points of its report into a series of infographics, the numbers leaped to life.

The DoE isn’t the only agency with plenty of statistics that constituents care about. The Federal government has 127,187 data sets currently available to the public. How many of those data sets would be better understood and more likely to be shared if they were formatted into infographics? The answer: 127,187.

The intersection of art and data

An infographic is part storyteller, part motivator, and part data interpreter. It can transform complex data that has a high degree of significance to an agency into a fluent narrative that can be approached and consumed as a story. Whether the goal is to encourage people to rally to a cause or change a behavior, the message will be more persuasive when numbers are used to convince, and images are used to stir emotions.