"Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication"

Jeff Seltzer 10476 web.jpg

JEFF SELTZER is the Managing Partner at Hypothesis. Contact Jeff at jseltzer@hypothesisgroup.com.

I recently came across this quote from Leonardo da Vinci and it instantly resonated. Certainly, the concept of simplicity is central to the work we do at Hypothesis, especially when it comes to reporting. Too many research and consulting firms create reports that are the opposite of simple—they are confusing, complicated, and long. We don’t want our reports (or anything else we do) to be hard for our clients and stakeholders. Ironically, creating a simple report requires effort, skill, and experience. Yes, it’s relatively easy to manufacture a 100+ slide deck, but we’d rather send a 20 slide deck that’s sophisticated and beautiful…simple.

Below are some steps we teach our team to help them create “simple” reports as part of our storytelling approach:

 1.       Know the data. Really know it. Know it like your favorite show or your favorite band. Understand it. Live with it. Don’t try to memorize every number. You know you’re done when you can explain the data to someone with little-to-no background on the project in a matter of minutes or even seconds. I always ask, "could you explain this to your Mom?" One suggestion: go back to the objectives of the study and answer them one by one in a conversational format, or write a bulleted summary on one slide, without numbers. Yes that's hard to do. .

2.       Interpret, don’t just describe. As many know, I’m a photographer, and I’m sometimes asked to give lectures on the subject. I often discuss understanding and appreciating the the difference between describing an image, and interpreting the image's meaning.

Bench and Bushes (at a School) ., 2011.

Bench and Bushes (at a School)., 2011.

Consider the image above from my Harmony series.. When I ask students about this image, I typically get responses like “It’s a bench, with some bushes,” or “the lighting is nice,” or “I like the composition and color—it' has green and blue..” Students have no problem quickly and easily writing an entire page describing this photo in such intricate detail that one could re-create the image based on the description alone. Then I challenge them to interpret the image. “What does it make you feel? Is it about isolation and loneliness? What does it say about your own school?” I encourage viewers to avoid obvious description, and instead interpret themes. The same applies to research and analysis—don't just tell me what you see, tell me what it means. But, that requires a point of view...

3.       Express a point of view.  Because there’s never one absolutely certain interpretation of the data, interpreting requires doing something many (if not most) researchers find out of their comfort zone: expressing an opinion in a report; however, doing so is absolutely necessary. Expressing a point of view isn't “spinning” the data with all the usual negative connotations. Your opinion must be grounded in the data, and generally developed using inductive reasoning. You have to muster the confidence to filter the data and findings through your lens, which should include strong foundational knowledge based on previous research, experience, and—hold on to your hats—common sense. Expressing a point of view isn't easy, it takes courage...

4.       Write with courage. When it comes time to crafting slides and reporting, avoid the common mistake/temptation to address multiple interpretations. That style of reporting is a defensive approach based on fear—for example, the fear of someone asking “but where’s…xyz?” If your point of view is well developed and supported, you should have the courage to truly believe “xyz doesn’t really matter." Writing defensively, a style I see with many junior analysts, often results in long, winding, rambling reports with too many charts and data points. Taking a stand and supporting a single point of view will go a long way toward creating a sophisticated report. A simple report.

5.       Visualize, don't just make it pretty. Proper data visualization is more than just making charts look pretty. Visuals need to capture the essence of each idea and portray it in an interesting, beautiful, and precise way—in a way that's better than words.. Sometimes this means a diagram, other times, an overarching infographic. Or,perhaps a set of custom icons. Regardless, visualization requires collaboration, effort, skill, and the right kind of creativity. We find it also requires an on-going, two-way dialogue between the analyst and designer. If done right, a "simple" picture can easily communicate complex ideas. For more on data visualization and infographics, check out a recent blog post from Edahn Small, our Creative Director and leader of Gridspace Collective at Hypothesis.

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