On Saturday evening, more than 17million of us tuned in to watch the Prime Minister announce the details of new lockdown restrictions for England. Many of the details had been leaked in advance. Explaining the specifics of the new rules was fairly straightforward, taking up just a minute and 45 seconds of the 25 minute press conference. And yet, the message was somehow lost amongst an overload of slides, graphs, heatmaps and models. By 7pm, when the Prime Minister was summing up, Google was recording the start of a large spike in searches for “what are the new lockdown rules”
So how can a major TV event intended to provide clarity result in such confusion and uncertainty? We’ve picked out some key considerations from our Compelling Storytelling training to analyse how the announcement missed the mark.
In a situation like this, the data is important. Any announcement that impacts people’s lives so significantly must be demonstrably based on evidence, if only to persuade the nation of the necessity of the imminent measures. We need to hear from the scientists on the current reality and their best estimates of what happens next.
But Christ, sharing the data doesn't have to be so perplexing and disengaging.
After the briefest of apologies for taking up our time from Boris Johnson, it was straight over to the science. What followed was 15 overly complex, poorly labelled and partly unnecessary slides presented over 13 minutes. Even the most data nerdy amongst us (myself included) could have done with something easier to digest and less laboured. On the 15th and final slide, Sir Patrick Valance showed a glimpse of empathy, admitting “this is a complicated slide…”
The purpose of any data visualisation - from pie charts to heatmaps - is to make data easier to comprehend. If you find yourself having to take longer to explain the chart than to draw out the insight, then it’s not working.
The important take out from slide 1, for example, was that the prevalence of the virus is growing nationwide - this is no longer a northern problem. Yet the data presented showed this alongside another visualisation - the weekly case count by region (which does still retain a northern focus).
For the members of sage and the cabinet, it’s clearly important to keep in mind both case count and rate of change, but if you’re trying to make the point to the nation that the rate of change is increasing nationally, don’t dilute your point and your audience’s attention by simultaneously sharing and explaining a different measure.
This is something we see a lot with data, where presenters stick everything on a slide and ask the audience to focus on one aspect. If it’s not relevant to the point you want to make, don’t show it (and if you really do need it for completeness, put it in a leave-behind).
While this was slide 1, the remaining 14 provided a comprehensive set of worst-practice errors when presenting data.
Slide 3 contained a really key insight - ONS data shows that the prevalence of COVID has been increasing extremely rapidly in recent weeks, and is now at an estimated 50,000 new cases a day and rising. This key point deserves our attention. But whilst our ears were hearing it being made, our eyes were simultaneously trying to grasp the meaning of a scatter chart with error bars, and read the accompanying text:
ONS COVID-19 household infection survey official reported estimates of the rate of COVID-19 infections in the community in England.
An estimated 568,100 people within the community population in England had COVID-19 during the most recent week, from 17th to 23rd October 2020. This equates to 1.04% of the population in England or around 1 in 100 people. ONS estimate there were around 9.52 new COVID-19 infections for every 10,000 people per day within the community population in England, equating to around 51,900 new cases per day.
We simply can’t read, listen and decipher at the same time. The scatter chart showed the pace of increase, but this point was made elsewhere (and we’ve seen it every day on the news for weeks anyway).
Having more than a few words on a slide forces your audience to try to listen and read at the same time, making it much harder for them to grasp the point and take anything from it.
Less text, fewer charts, more insight (adding the fact that there are currently over 500,000 people with COVID in England would have been a useful addition to the notion of 50,000 new cases per day in the voiceover).
We could go on. The heatmaps by region by age group over time made no sense to most viewers and again overcomplicated a simple point - cases are increasing across all age groups in all areas. The granularity of displaying specific hospitals might have been intended to ram home the point that this affects all areas, but cropping out the names of the hospitals made an unnecessary point entirely redundant.
The story the data tells is compelling and vital. R is consistently above 1. We’re seeing an acceleration of infection across all regions and age groups, with 50,000 new cases a day and rising. We are likely to exceed current hospital bed capacity by 23rd November. Without action, the modelling predicts between 2,000 and 6,000 deaths per day over the winter.
But the complexity and excess of charts and the accompanying need to explain the visualisations before addressing the key point made all of this seem complex and theoretical.
Start with a bang
Research shows that a presenter has maybe 30 seconds to win over their audience. The start of your presentation sets the tone. On Saturday, Boris Johnson started with a 16 second apology and a hand over to Chris Whitty, who in turn set the tone with these words:
“Thank you Prime Minister. First slide please. This is a version of a slide that, erm, listeners and watchers may have seen several times before, err, but as you can see the weekly case rate for COVID, which is in the darker colours, mean, erm, that the numbers are worse, er, is spreading steadily. It was quite heavily concentrated in particular areas and it is now over quite a large part of the country.”
Less than a minute in, and we’re already having to work hard to decipher the meaning. We’re here to find out if we can go to work next week, if schools will be open, whether we can still see our families. Instead, we’re settling in for an indeterminately long and complicated data migraine.
This might seem harsh on Chris Whitty, who after all is a scientist and not a public speaker. But understanding complex data is only part of his job. An equally important part is translating complex data to non-specialists (be it the public or politicians). Launching into waffle about a chart is not what is needed to get the audience engaged.
Respect your audience
Moreover, managing the audience’s expectations is hugely important. If you conclude that it is necessary to set out the scientific case before revealing the restrictions, then open by explaining this. “Chris and Patrick will first take a few minutes to share where we are now, then I’ll set out the changes we’ll be implementing from Thursday next week”. Even this is better than having 17 million people shouting “BUT WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN” through 13 minutes of introductory slides with no clear end in sight.
Ironically, what was needed when we did return to the Prime Minister was more slides. The key take outs of the 25 minute address - what we can and can’t do from Thursday - was rattled off in under 2 minutes. Each new restriction invited consideration of ‘what does this mean to me’, but there was no opportunity to pause for this reflection as we swiftly moved to the next point.
For this section, a couple of slides summarising the restrictions in bullet point form, perhaps even via a build, would have helped crystallise the message and give clarity to what was being said (though, obviously, without incurring the cardinal presentation sin of simply reading the slide out loud!).
It’s a common mistake to throw everything at our audience and hope the right bits stick. But to do so is to forget what it’s like to be on the receiving end - the boredom and fatigue of an overly complex or long presentation.
Respecting the audience means cutting to the essential detail of what they want to know as quickly and simply as possible. The more you throw other stuff at them, the more frustrated and disengaged they'll get. The longer and harder you ask them to concentrate, the less mental energy and stamina they have to process the important information.
Compared to the average presentation, Saturday’s Government announcement was high stakes. The message was hugely important and its implications far reaching. It was rightly serious in tone and supported by fact and evidence. But even in these circumstances, it becomes apparent how important the narrative is, how much consideration must be made of the audience experience, and how even vital information can be lost through poor presentation.
Storytelling can sometimes sound like creative fluff or indulgent window dressing. Our collective experience and subsequent confusion on Saturday evening proves it’s vital to every presentation.
If you'd like to learn more about our compelling storytelling training, and why we think storytelling is one of the five essential skills of modern work, get in touch via our website - www.4and20million.com