Touching the Brain, Welcome to the Age of Engagement

So back in 2016 I was provided the opportunity by the awesome Visitor Studies Association to deliver my first ever keynote. If you ever get the chance to hang out with a bunch of Museum evaluators, you should. They are cool people.

Out of all of my presentations, I think it was one of my best. In a moment of reflection, it occurred to me that I never shared that talk again, so here we go.

We live in an age where information is ubiquitous. Just about anything you need to know is just a button push away.

My 6 year old daughter will ask me a question and if I don’t have the answer, she’ll reply simply, “Just Google It.”

I could make some joke about the next generation, but really that’s what so many of us do now-a-days.

For example, I was watching one of those survivalist reality shows recently with my dad and brother, the guys on the show were trappers. And they were making a trade with a beaver pelt. To which I thought, “why is a beaver pelt worth so much?”

Well a couple of Google searches later and I learn that beavers have soft fur that makes for really nice felt that can be used to make really expensive hats.

But I’m not here to talk about the plight of beavers, trapper culture, or expensive animal fur hats.

We’re here to talk about the data revolution, and what that means for you.

I’m lucky enough to live in the middle of North Carolina’s research triangle. And we have some really nice museums and parks. So while I may not be an expert at Visitor Studies, being the father of a young curious child, I have become quite the expert Visitor.

We have older and newer museums, and even museums that are a little of both. And it’s really interesting to go from the old sides to the new sides. Because there is just so much of a difference between the exhibits.

One of the problems with the older exhibits in museums, is that they were all written to tell visitors what we know. Or, at least, what we knew.

But what we know changes all of the time. Also, a lot of times, what we know is also being debated.

As technology improved and museums took advantage of new tools, the exhibits evolved. They were more advanced, even if not philosophically very different.

All of the sudden there were touch screens that allowed children to explore further than just what was on the surface. We moved from “What we Know” to “What we Know 2.0.”

But that’s not the end of our journey. As the smart phones that sit in our pockets have more computing power than ever before, even “What we Know 2.0” has a hard time competing.

Which brings me to touching the brain.

So this is a picture of my daughter touching a real human brain at the Life and Science Museum in Durham, North Carolina. My wife took the picture as I stood about a hundred feet away kind of creeped out by the activity.

But here is the thing. There are all sorts of really good exhibits at the museum of the “what we know” and “what we know 2.0” variety. But touching the brain is different.

It’s not about conveying information per say, but creating engagement. And it’s an experience that my little girl will remember for a long time.

Now if you visit a museum, there is a good chance that you will see examples of all three of these things.

Take butterfly exhibits for example. You may see a display with a bit of information (“what we know”) and there might even be an interactive infographic that lets the visitors see butterflies in action (“what we know 2.0”).

Or maybe there is a butterfly house. A place where visitors can amble along a path surrounded by fluttering butterflies. A butterfly house is certainly a “touching the brain” kind of exhibit.

Welcome to the age of engagement.

The transition from “what we know” and “what we know 2.0” to “touching the brain.”

You didn’t invite me here to talk about exhibits. You brought me here to kick off a conference on the data revolution.

But this very same transition is happening all around us. Take reports for instance.

For a long time research and evaluation reporting meant producing a long 200 page pdf report designed to deliver everything we know. A “what we know” type of report.

Now we have infographics, dashboards, slide-docs, visual one-pagers, interactive web reports, and videos.

All of which are very much “what we know 2.0” types of communications.

So how do we report in a “touching the brain” kind of way?

First, we need to understand our audience.

Engaging reports are always designed with the audience in mind.

And the more important the work, the more important it is for you to find what is interesting enough to connect with your audience.

Second, just enough is enough.

When you have said what you needed to say to pique interest, don’t keep writing until you hit 20 pages.

Third, be a guide.

Your audience is on a learning journey, you are there to guide them.

You are Yoda, not Luke.

The audience is the hero, you are there to support the hero.

Fourth, helpful is greater than comprehensive.

When we go into the reporting or communication process, there is this pull to be as comprehensive as possible. To give them everything, the complete background.

The comprehensive stuff might be important for some audiences, but most of the time the helpful part is much more compact.

And finally, fifth, questions and problems are more engaging than answers and solutions.

If I were to give you a list of answers to math problems it wouldn’t mean anything. When we are engaged in our work there is an excitement to share all that we have found. But if the problem is not something the audience is thinking about at all times, that’s where we need to start.

If you engage with problems and questions, your audience will stay with you for the solutions.

Here are a few examples of what I mean from a reporting perspective.

Descriptive Stats are a way to show what we know. Small multiple charts help us go a little bit deeper. But the full dataset with heat map coloring and auto-filters gives our audience the ability to dive into the data.

Presentations are a good way for you to tell a board what you know. Offering a one-pager along side goes a little bit further.

But using a data placemat, a type of infographic where you offer charts and no analysis trusting the audience to do the analysis, is a form of reporting through engagement.

For qualitative reporting, a “what you know” kind of report might be your usual analysis with a few quotes thrown in along the way to support your finding. A “what you know 2.0” type of report is the next step, integrating photos and illustrations to improve the experience a bit.

But a “touching the brain” kind of qualitative report might be a qualitative dashboard. Something that allows the reader to see the big picture but dive into the underlying qualitative data.

What examples come to your mind?

Think about your own work. How have you evolved your reports in to engage and not simply provide answers?

What types of activities can you do to engage?

I would love to hear about them.