In this blog, Anne-Marie Greenslade discusses presenting sensitive information in creative ways, striking the balance between sensitivity and making an impact.
I met Anne-Marie after delivering the keynote speech for the Research and Enterprise conference at Leeds Beckett University (LBU).
Anne-Marie is a PhD student of LBU where she conducts research into trafficking and slavery.
As a PhD candidate researching support services for victims of traumatic crime, I read a lot about survivor stories and the worst excesses of human behaviour. Although I have developed strategies for managing my emotional responses to this, I frequently present my research to wider audiences.
Naturally, I want to produce an engaging talk that avoids “Death by PowerPoint” but how can I convey distressing information in graphic form? No one wants to upset a room full of strangers. Water it down too much, however, and the power of the narrative is diminished.
Presenting sensitive information in sensitive ways
1. Identify your audience
This is the first and most important step.
Are you presenting to a diverse group of people? What type of event is it?
With a broad audience at a generic conference, very few will have come across your material before. It would, therefore, be wiser to play it safe and use imagery that does not risk too much distress.
At specialist events where your audience is more familiar with the issue, they are likely to be accustomed to its realities.
The title of your presentation should provide a clear idea of the subject area, which will give a heads up to the attendees.
You can also issue a warning before you begin so that your audience is aware of potentially sensitive images.
2. Access appropriate media
It may feel easy to resort to a quick internet search. Generally though, entering the relevant terms will only produce clichéd pictures that do not accurately illustrate your point. Look at appropriate sources within your subject area and the nature of their own graphics, e.g. organisational websites, promotional videos, leaflets, etc. This should give you some ideas about the correct balance. They may also have links to external material that could be suitable to include in your presentation.
Always remember to cite your sources to avoid breaching copyright laws. Alternatively, there are multiple sites that offer access to public domain pictures, or have a look at Unspalsh or Pexels. Just be aware that these are likely to produce images similar to a standard web search.
3. Explore alternative formats
You may wish to consider putting your creativity to use in a less formal way. Cartoons, gifs or memes can demonstrate your argument without being too traumatic.
Climate change, for example, is the subject of hundreds of political cartoons. This kind of punchy, easily-digested information is far more memorable than a slide full of bullet points.
References to popular culture can also give context to audiences who may not be familiar with your subject.
By using an entertaining analogy, you provide a route to understanding without exposing people to distressing imagery.
4. Use news headlines
If the subject is topical, show how it is presented through news media or use stories to highlight the importance of your research. When the story has been produced for public consumption, matters of sensitivity will already have been considered.
UK Parliament also uploads House of Commons debates and Select Committee videos, which can be accessed for free via YouTube. Short clips of Q&As can show the attention your subject is receiving at policy levels.
Archived headlines and clips can also give background context to your research. They may demonstrate what progress has been made or even highlight how long the issue has persisted.
5. Bring your data to life
Have you undertaken empirical research? Make sure that your data has a voice – this is the most unique part of your presentation. Quantitative data can be tricky to portray in an accessible way. Your audience will need a clear visual that explains its significance. Charts are the most obvious format, but remember to label exactly what you are showing and why.
Remember that you know what you are talking about, but your audience is seeing it for the first time and will need appropriate context.
With qualitative data, a single sentence from a study participant can carry a lot of weight. Bring the words alive by playing audio or video clips. Actors or even friends can provide the voices of participants to maintain confidentiality.
Read our previous blog about presenting data effectively
Enjoy the process of putting your work together. Using your imagination to present your research in creative ways can help clarify your ideas. It also supports your work by making your subject area more accessible, even if the topic is emotionally difficult. This will encourage constructive feedback from your audience, which will, in turn, give you more perspective on your research.
Many thanks to Anne-Marie for writing this blog. Make sure to follow her on twitter at @AM_Greenslade.
If you have any more tips on presenting sensitive information in creative ways let us know in the comments below.