Saturday, November 14, 2009

Time for the charts and graphs, Mr. President?

Anyone old enough to have followed the candidacy of Ross Perot probably remembers how the media mocked and smirked at him for using charts and graphs in his TV addresses to the voters. How could anyone be so dense? The public doesn't have enough attention span to even look at, much less understand, your slides!

Then someone actually polled this and discovered that the public liked the charts and graphs. Of course, the media studiously ignored that finding. Presumably the talking heads were bored by actual information, so they naturally assumed that the "common people" they claim to represent must be also. And in the meantime, Perot's candidacy went down in flames for other reasons.

Fast forward to today. The issues that Obama is grappling with are big and complex. Before the public can get behind any solutions, they have to understand the problems. The media are useless for this: they'll provide nothing but "he said, she said" (i.e., "balanced") reporting. If Obama says one thing and John Boehner says the opposite, they'll give equal weight to both claims.

Maybe it's time to bring out the charts and graphs.

If you saw "An Inconvenient Truth," I'll bet the same image sticks in your mind that stuck in mine: Gore's simple trend line graph showing the rise in atmospheric CO2 over the years. It was a dramatic illustration of the problem, and it's very hard for Inhofe and the other deniers to just dismiss it. It was, in short, persuasive!

I think that similar kinds of hard data, graphically presented, could be equally persuasive on the economy, education, financial reform—all the big issues that Obama has to argue about with idiots.

If it's "I claim this" and "You claim that", it's easy for voters to dismiss it as just politics. But if it's "I claim this, and here's a dramatic illustration that proves it," it's much harder to ignore. And educational experts will tell you that the most effective way to communicate is with words and pictures.

So how about it, Mr. President? Why not try backing up your great rhetoric with equally great illustrations? What could it hurt?

(A really good way to start: bring in Edward Tufte, the guru of visual presentation of data, as a consultant.)

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