top of page

Making Your Data Tell a Better Story - Visual Images

Let me begin with a confession: I'm not only a qualitative researcher, I'm actually an ethnographer. That means I'm one of those nutter Profs who forsakes the Ivory Tower for the field, and my research field has largely been marginalized communities colloquially or otherwise known as 'skid row.' I started in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in the late 90s, and then moved on to San Francisco's Tenderloin, Los Angeles' skid row, Detroit and the south side of Chicago (among other places). In short, I worked in spaces in which few people would voluntarily choose to visit, nevermind inhabit, and I spent a lot of time there listening (and sometimes observing) some pretty horrific stuff.

I tell you this because the ethnographer's job is twofold:

1. to communicate ideas based on our observations (drawn from systematic field work, interviews, documents and so on) and;

2. to tell you a story that makes you want to hear those ideas in the first place.

This is one of the reasons I've found it easy to work cops: like a good ethnographer, the policing culture is full of exceptional story-tellers.You see, cops* and ethnographers learned something important long before there was ever a TED talk: if you can connect to someone emotionally, or by piquing their curiosity, you can get them to think about what you're talking about (watch the best TED talks and you'll see what I mean, the best TED speakers typically engage with you on a personal level before they try to convince you of their point).

The number one mistake academics make in presenting data is to go for "all head, no heart" by over-focusing on methodology and data and charts of results to convince an audience of the merits of their arguments. In doing that, they forget that a significant part of the job is to make people actually care. It doesn't matter if this is in presentation format or on paper, it's frankly boring and counter-productive (if I don't care about the topic, then why do I care about your Chi Squared test or your snappy survey style?).

Unfortunately, all too often, I see the same thing when police officers are presenting data to support an idea. I get to see one picture (usually of a cop patting little Timmy on the head) and then straight to death by PowerPoint.

Whatever medium you are using to communicate, whoever your audience is, or whoever you are (officer, crime analyst or academic), please give some thought to using an old ethnographer's trick: use images that speak to the 'who cares question’ or 'why should anyone care' part of your work. I not only do this when I present, I also try to include images (where I can) in my professional papers and in my published writing. Yes, you read that correctly: I once turned in a systematic review on safe injection sites to a police service that started with a picture of discarded needles on the ground. If the work is solid, then the visual element just adds to the overall story.

In fact, I would argue that you can tell an entire story with one very strong image, a story that resonates much more than simple words or graphs or charts or discussions of your variables.

Think about it: which was more impactful, the story I told you about where I spent the better part of almost 20 years or the pictures** I took that represent aspects of life in those spaces?

So, when EBP advocates, like me, advise you to not base your arguments for a given policy or program on stories of little Timmy who was headed for a life of crime, we don’t mean kill all the stories. We mean do not rely SOLELY on stories. Make people care and then hit them with solid data. And, for extra bonus point, wrap things up by reminding them again of why they should care.

*A fantastic paper on policing culture that is too rarely referenced is by Clifford Shearing and Richard Ericson (1991) on the important role of police storytelling as an instructional tool by experienced officers.

**BTW, the pics are mine, and are from: Vancouver, Detroit, Los Angeles and Greater Manchester.

bottom of page