Content and Meaning. Story-telling and Story-listening.

angela morelli
Nov 28, 2014 · 7 min read

Seven years ago, after my MA in Information Design, I ventured into the world of communicating science, driven by the desire to build a bridge between Design and Science, through collaboration with scientists and researchers. Since that time, I have stubbornly plunged into spaces that are far from the design circles, often suffering an identity crisis as a result!

A background in engineering and design, a passion for science and beauty, an interest in perception and cognition, and a love for the planet powered my journey — a journey that shows me, every day, the potential of Information Design as a tool for effective communication, data analysis, decision-making.

The advantage of working with scientists on a daily basis is that you have the opportunity to explore content in an extraordinary way. The dialogue never stops and through that dialogue it becomes clearer how to design processes and tools to guide understanding of information so that your receiver can accomplish specific tasks or achieve a goal.

In the past seven years I have had the opportunity to share thoughts and projects with different audiences in different settings, I have researched and reflected on what understanding means, and I have experienced first hand how vital it is to design information not only in a way that is clear, but also in a way that strikes the right note in the mind of the viewer.

Along my journey I have experienced the value of Content and the value of Meaning.

I have learnt that mastering the Content with the guidance of scientists and experts is a vital step in order to choose the most appropriate narrative, to achieve the right balance between words and images, to understand how to make the best use of beauty and sense of wonder. Without a constant dialogue with the scientists, communicating science is a risky thing, because we can easily focus on myths rather than truths, and communicate messages that may confuse or mislead.

I have learnt that data — whether words or numbers — always contain a degree of uncertainty but they can reveal extraordinary trends. I have learnt how it is important to start with numbers but to go beyond numbers, because numbers, as the product of a complex reality, reflect complex stories and contain many truths.

Above all, I have learnt from science that understanding is a complex process that involves not only logical reasoning but also the emotions. The complexity of human nature can aid or undermine the process of understanding, even when there is scientific consensus about the information we are communicating.

This is where, and why, the value of Meaning enters my world.

Arthur Lupia, Professor in Political Science at the University of Michigan, tells an interesting story called A Walk in the Woods.

Suppose that when you were young you lived near some woods and you spent a lot of time in these woods. As an adult no one would doubt you are an expert on the woods. One day you and your best friend decide to have a walk in the woods. There is a rainstorm. The wind is blowing terribly hard, the sound of the rain is making it almost impossible to hear your friend. You and your friend get separated. You know the woods pretty well so you manage to get home safely but your friend is trapped there. Now it is your job to get your friend out of the woods. You might think: ‘Who better than me to save my friend? After all, none would doubt that I am an expert on the woods’. But here is the point: to get your friend out of the woods there are two things you have to know: one is the woods and the other is where your friend is.

The problem, Lupia says, when we have to communicate to an audience, especially when we are experts in a discipline, is that we make assumptions about where our friends are. So we start yelling: ‘Take three steps to the left’ and our friends are walking against a tree or falling in the rivers, because we do not really know how they see things, we do not really know where they are. Therefore the direction we give, the science we are trying to convey, is not connecting because it is ignorant of where the people are.

Some years ago I thought clarity was enough in order to connect. I thought good design was enough.

But I was wrong!

I have learnt that pouring facts on to audiences is useless, no matter how well designed those facts are, no matter how reliable, no matter what degree of scientific literacy or numeracy our audiences have, no matter who they are: consumers, policy makers, general public, you, me.

I have learnt that it is not just about the information we want to communicate, but also about what our audiences can do with that information. It is not just about the message we want to get across but about how the message is perceived and experienced by the audience.

In other words it is not just about story-telling but about story-listening.

The first concept is teller-centric, the second one listener-centric. Starting with our listeners is such a good practice — it will help us figure out their mental journey and help guide us through the process of designing the story we want them to understand. If understanding and action are our goals, the story we tell — whether it is based on words or numbers, sounds or images — should be a journey in the mind of our listeners, a journey that includes all the necessary steps to achieve understanding and facilitate action, an experience we build by orchestrating a dance of perception and cognition, feelings and emotions.

Scientists tell us that the human ability for understanding does not rely purely on logical reasoning but also on emotional mechanisms. Professor Daniel Kahneman is one of those scientists. Nobel laureate in behavioural economics he offers us some incredible insights. He tells us that we understand the world by employing two different modes of thought: System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is associated with the kinds of action we call automatic and the kind of thoughts we call intuitive. It produces actions that allow us to avoid an obstacle while driving, or evokes an emotion if I show you a picture of your mother. System 1 is the fast system.

System 2 is associated with the kind of actions that require mental effort and the thoughts we call intentional. It produces the kinds of action that allow us to read a map or fill in a form. System 2 is the slow system.

Kahneman’s research tell us that when we think about ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices and decides what to think about and what to do. But what happens instead is that it is the instinctive System 1 that guides us most of the time. It is System 1 that provides the impressions that turn into our beliefs. It is System 1 that gives a tacit interpretation of what is happening around us and of the reality around us. System 1 is the source of the impulses that often become our choices and our actions.

We believe in System 1 and in what the System 1 tells us. System 1 is a story-telling system. It gives meaning to reality through stories and produces stories that make sense to us and are coherent.

But Kahneman reminds us that, with System 1, this coherence is not logical coherence but associative and emotional coherence. Associative coherence is a form of coherence that depends on how well the information we receive fits into our network of ideas and beliefs. It depends on the meaning we give to that information.

Kahneman warns us that when we communicate we should never forget to speak to the System 1 of our audiences and we should remember that System 1 is bound more by the coherence of the story than by the scientific evidence behind it. In other words, communicating evidence is necessary but not sufficient in order for an audience to understand, accept, embrace, the information we communicate.

In a very interesting talk on science literacy, science numeracy and risk perception Prof Dan Kahan of Yale shares really interesting findings I invite you to have a look at. He runs a project called Cultural Cognition with the aim of studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. He provides evidence about why content and meaning are important.

He suggests a two-channel communication: the Channel of Content and the Channel of Meaning.

As communicators we need the Channel of Content because we need to convey the information in a way that is understandable for our audience. We need to chunk the information down, have a clear message and present it in a way that is understandable. But we also need the Channel of Meaning. As human beings we will always be assessing the information unconsciously — assessing how it is going to affect our life and the links to the social groups we belong to. If the information coming along the meaning channel threatens us we will freeze or run away.

Therefore we need to know where our audience is, and how to connect to them.

We need to come up not with the narrative we think it is good for us but with the narrative that is good for them. Science can provide precious knowledge on how to communicate effectively and it reminds us that our listeners have something in common whether they are policy makers, children, teachers, entrepreneurs, farmers, mothers or fathers: they are all human beings, they have all hearts, brains and feelings. Content and meaning, story-telling and story-listening, scientific rigour and emotions are all essential tools for effective communication, but it is only together that they can satisfy the complexity of human nature.

    angela morelli

    Written by

    Co-founder, CEO, Information Designer, Info-Activist, Lecturer, Science Communicator, YGL-WEF| infodesignlab.com