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Why researchers should “Show not tell”

As an advocate of visualization in research and more broadly, I enjoyed a recent article that highlights that comic books and graphic novels are not frivolous and tap into important aspects of human communication and understanding.

Especially in Western cultures we tend to define literacy in terms of verbal language and conceptual thinking, but the article argues that there is much more to literacy than this. As Mary Widdicks points out, visual communication precedes verbal communication, with cave wall images 40,000 years or more ago recording and sharing human experiences, through visual narratives that combine space and time and connect us to the people who created them.

Simple lines and forms are still used to communicate human features, identity and emotions, both in children’s (and adults’) drawings and increasingly in emoji, stickers and icons (read more here and here). As she points out, the way that (especially) children draw reflects how they experience the world and the relative importance of faces and hands in their experience.

Similarly, comics and graphic novels tell stories work in the same way, by visually mapping how we experience the world, focusing on the language of bodies, faces, colours and spatial orientation. This focus on spatial, physical and emotional experience reflects the vast majority of how we perceive and understand the world. That is, they are much closer to our experience than verbal descriptions.

For example, we process visual information much, much faster than text (by some estimates 60,000 times faster or more) and have a much better memory for that information. Thus, visual storytelling is much more efficient than text-based communication, working sequentially rather than holistically.

The article is a great reminder of the power of visual storytelling, especially for those who struggle with written and verbal communication. Thus, visual storytelling empowers the sharing and the understanding of experiences.

This is a timely reminder for researchers to use visual tools to help research participants to articulate how their experiences, feelings and thoughts. A key principle of Hollywood storytelling is to “show not tell”. We should all apply the same principle to any situation where we seek to understand a person and their story.

If you would like to know more about visual storytelling in research, please get in touch.

[You can find Mary Widdick’s original article here.]

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