The background section of reports is often the most dull. It’s one of the reasons that Stephanie Evergreen suggests flipping the order of reports to push it further back. But there’s no reason that background information needs to be dull. Here’s a strategy to bring it to life using an interactive timeline.
Descriptions of the history of a program are often particularly tedious. Long blocks of text with a “this happened, then this happened” rhythm are not engaging to anyone. Does this mean that a history section need be boring? Absolutely not! Maybe the issue is more with the presentation of the information rather than the information itself.
Does a history section need to be boring? Absolutely not!
My static report on Outdoor School in Oregon didn’t have much of a history section. So, when I decided to add one to the digital report I’ve been developing, I knew I wanted it to be engaging (after all, why make it a digital report if you’re not taking advantage of this medium?).
To make the history engaging, I used the Timeline tool from the Knight Lab. With this amazing tool, you simply create a Google spreadsheet with information about the history you want to share, add photos, videos, and maps, and hit publish. The result is an interactive timeline that allows users to scroll through the history of a program, seeing contemporary photos, watching related videos, and seeing maps that locate places related to the events being described.
The timeline I developed is admittedly simple, and has a strong bias toward Outdoor School events in the Portland area (due to the fact that the best history comes from the Multnomah Educational Service District Outdoor School program). That said, it does demonstrate the capabilities of this tool.
See the difference between this interactive timeline and several paragraphs of dense text that describe history? Which would you be more likely to engage with? And which would you remember more from?
Would you rather read several paragraphs of text or use an interactive timeline?
I’ve added this timeline to the digital report on Outdoor School, but I’ve intentionally chosen to place it at the bottom. I know that most people reading the report are interested in what’s happening today with Outdoor School. For those who care about its history, there’s now a compelling way to learn more, but it won’t get in the way of those aren’t as interested in this topic.
Presenting history in this way demonstrates one of my mantras: text is data visualization too. We tend to think of data visualization only when creating graphs, but text is just another way to visualize information (writing is visual, after all), albeit not always the most effective way.
Deep thought for the morning: text is data visualization too. When we write long reports without effective data visualization, we are still visualizing data, just doing it poorly. #eval
— David Keyes (@dgkeyes) February 20, 2018
Why not, then, make this data even more visual? Using an interactive timeline to show history is one way to make your reporting more engaging and more useful for those reading it.