You give complex diagrams… a bad name

Death by PowerPoint

It’s not often that a Powerpoint page makes it to the front page of a national newspaper.  The story goes like this.  Leaders were discussing the complexity of American Military strategy in Afghanistan.  Someone prepared a PowerPoint slide after lots of work.  The slide was shown to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who leads the US and NATO forces.  There was a awkward pause, broken by his observation that “when we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”  The audience lets out a roar of laughter.  The presenters and diagram-preparers are embarrassed.

Perhaps you’ve seen this page.  It’s become its own meme.  It was ridiculed by many, including Jon Stewart and probably many of your Facebook friends.  It confirms what many of us have seen with our own eyes: there’s a fine line between trying to communicate a memorable story and drop-off-the-cliff absurdity, especially when you are dealing with a complex story.

As a stand-alone, this is a horrible picture.  Many pictures that try to tell a complex story do not do well by sitting by themselves.  Your audience may be familiar with the topics and may even agree with what you are trying to communicate.  But in general, our audience needs a guided tour through something like this.

There’s a certain fluency required in understanding a complex causal loop diagram.  What makes it worse is that without a guided tour, your audience is misled into thinking that since they can read parts of the diagram, they can also read the “whole diagram”.  This is faulty logic.  You don’t want to make the audience seem dumb.  Your audience may be very smart, but when confronted with a diagram like this, they are likely to ask some practical questions.  Where do I start?  What does this mean?  If there are no grips or footings to stand on, your audience will fall, or at least feel like they are slipping.  So they ridicule the diagram, say nothing, or wait until someone says something funny.

So what do you do if you have a complex story to tell that’s best represented by a causal loop diagram?

You should first establish some “basic rules” of how something like this is read.  There are many ways to do this depending on what you are discussing, how many diagrams are in play, your relationship to your audience and a host of other factors.  Sometimes a one-page introduction with a description of what the following diagram shows, along with one loop or a few links does the trick.

You can show things in chunks.  Do you notice the colors?  There are subsections or subsystems.  You can start with an overall subsystem diagram that shows the stakeholders and links… maybe this has only 5-10 actors and only 10-15 links.  All we’re doing is establishing that there are many players and different relationships… not enough detail to be useful, but enough to engage and prepare the discussion.  Then build out details, chunks at a time.

Never forget to explain WHAT you are trying to do with the diagram.  Also notice that it’s “what YOU are trying to do”, and not “what the DIAGRAM is trying to do”.  The diagram does nothing.  Except confuse and amuse.  Human beings (like you or the audience) use, show, debate, decide, tell stories, and understand.

Ecologist Eric Berlow presents a good approach to stuff like this at a TED conference.  He starts with the whole, then gets rid of stuff.  The key is that he gets rid of stuff to fit a certain sub-story.  I call this “collapsing” the diagram… not a great use of the terminology, I admit, but useful in helping the audience feel a bit of relief from the task of dealing with everything.

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