May 2013: Persuasive Formats

I wanted to focus my own contribution to this month’s special edition (about “how to talk to companies about ethnography”) on presentation formats. That research findings will ultimately be delivered or presented is a given, but the particular format varies and seems often to be a matter of the conventions within particular organizational or research cultures. I’ve participated in ethnographic projects within the corporate sector. I’ve done a bit of consulting work for an NGO. The bulk of my career I’ve spent in Academia doing ethnographic work as most conventionally defined – culminating in the writing of an 80,000 word ethnographic monograph (which was text by-and-large with just a few black and white photos). On this basis, I’ve passed through a few different micro-worlds where different presentation practices prevailed.

In our interview with Steve Portigal this month I asked him about the hierarchy of formality he describes in his new book. For delivering the late-breaking or unprocessed findings (to communicate their informality) he uses e-mail, then Word documents, and finally polished results are delivered in PowerPoint. The ascendence of PowerPoint (not as an accompaniment to a project report, but as the report itself) in corporate settings and consultancy work I find really fascinating. Maybe because of the way it seems to prioritize communicating with as few words as possible, the pressure to edit down to the essentials, to consider what to omit just as much as what to include, how daunting! It seems obvious that this is reflection of the particularly intensive pressures of productivity, of delivering on the short project cycles of the private sector.


The Office suite of applications does not, by any means, encompass the full range of formats that are our options for communicating about ethnographic research. For example, my first job title when I worked in industry (at Intel Corp) was “Application Concept Developer.” My task was to translate research findings from our team of social scientists (who used interviews, observation, diary studies, copious photographs, etc) into interactive design concepts. These were not prototypes, but rather interactive demonstrations showing how insights from fieldwork fed into novel designs for computing systems. This was an attempt to communicate between social scientists and engineers…using the language of building and by engaging through interactivity.

[Editor’s Update: since posting this entry, I’ve been pointed in the direction of this excellent article (another one from EPIC), by Nina Wakeford, “PowerPoint and the Crafting of Social Data” which specifically considers PowerPoint as a format for outputting ethnographic analysis.

Broader consideration of PowerPoint includes:
– this article (stuck behind a paywall) on “PowerPoint in Public: Digital Technologies and the New Morphology of Demonstration” by David Stark and Verena Paravel in the journal Theory, Culture and Society.
– this intriguing looking book titled PowerPoint, Communication, and the Knowledge Society, by Hubert Knoblauch, published by Cambridge U. Press.]

Performing the fieldwork experience for audiences – raw data, transparency, and visuals

Prevailing formats are directly considered and questioned in an article from EPIC 2006 on “Rhetorics of Knowing in Corporate Ethnographic Research” by Dawn Nafus and ken anderson. They describe their own use of direct quotations and photographs from the field to deliver on their research mission to, “uncover new uses for computing power, identify important activities that are not well supported by technology, and understand barriers to technology adoption by studying real people in their natural live environments.” Quotations and photographs were employed to provide a kind of direct and transparent view of research informants who were shown photo-realistically and ‘speaking’ in their own words. Nafus and anderson considered, in retrospect, how their efforts to make ‘real’ and vivid these current and potential users (who were previously invisible non-entities that appeared nowhere in market segments, etc.) inadvertently oversimplified the work they were doing as researchers. These representations of “real” people also seemed to communicate the notion that such people could be straight-forwardly and transparently understood. From the perspective of the audiences they delivered their research findings to (often engineers, generally people not trained in the social sciences) the work they did amounted to (as one of the engineers described it), having “done drilldowns and got verbatims.”

This brings us to another challenge of work of presentations and the use of formats, especially visuals. Their purpose may not just be to make visible the populations being studied, but also to make visible the work of the researcher’s themselves; to establish their authority. The “confessional tale” is well-established in ethnographic writing (see Van Maanen, Tales of the Field). These are often set apart from whatever constitutes the ‘findings’ of the research, but show incidents of struggle or rapport building that demonstrate the difficulty of the work and why the author should be trusted on the matter. The photo of the researcher-in-the-field (often used as a marker of professional identity on websites and visual presentations) is a similar convention. The ethnographer appears somewhere exotic, somewhere distant from everyday life. Though, depending on the image, there’s the risk of making one’s work look too “fun.” Best for such a self-portrait to look studious, holding some sort of tool of data capture (a camera or notebook) or perhaps on an uncomfortable looking mode of transport (maybe something like a camel?).


an ethnographer in the field, but having too much fun?

Of course a format alone doesn’t do any of this automatically. As much as images might lend themselves to easily to misguided assumptions of transparency  and the performance of “I was there” that establishes researcher authority, a photo can, when carefully chosen, also confound in productive ways. I love to find excuses to use this image from Ghana (see below) as a way of explaining and talking about the concept of culture and challenging notions that people and the intent of their practices can be deduced either without interpretation (thus ‘objectively’) or that interpretations can be arrived at easily from a comfy distance.


what could it possibly mean?

Formats in Academic Ethnographic Work

The greatest conformity around format seems to be found in Academic work where text, text, and more text seems to prevail. One’s career and legitimacy as a scholar rests on a series of 8000 word articles or the occasional 100,000 word book with a few images, charts, or tables thrown in for good measure. That said there is an incredible power and flexibility in text, in what you can do with writing. But there also seems to be a kind of ‘path dependency’ at work here. The problem of scarcity in publishing budgets (especially academic publishing) may have made the copious use of visuals or videos too expensive or hard to distribute in the past, but this is no longer the same kind of constraint given possibilities for doing this kind of work on the Internet. There are recent efforts to break beyond this – one small step, is the photo essay series launched by the journal of Cultural Anthropology to offer “alternative forms of critical ethnographic expression.”

Specialization, the division between disciplines, and elitism also do seem to bear some responsibility, I think, for the minimal concern in the Academy with effective communication and consequently the lack of creative consideration around formats of presentation. Without rigid standards of output that scholars are judged on (i.e. the daunting hoop of producing a book-length ethnographic monograph) how will the elites of a discipline ensure that pretenders are kept out? To embrace experimentation is to perhaps let go of or gradually reestablish new criteria for evaluation. This very blog is also a foray into this experimentation, an expression of our desire to try alternate modes and combinations of formats with a goal of communicating more effectively and with a different audience then the ones reached through modes of presentation we normally work in. It works, maybe, because it isn’t rigidly peer reviewed and contributions are generally short and without heavy costs or consequences.

My intention in talking about formats was not to get bogged down (as I seem to have anyways!) in a discussion about text vs. images which implies that there is less to this conversation than I think there really is. Certainly last months ‘ethnomining’ edition is an excellent place to break out of a notion of ‘formats’ as just a matter of one media or another. I’m struck by the data visualizations in the blog posts for that edition and especially their intruiguing ambiguity. Beyond texts (short or long), images of all sorts, a PowerPoint slideset presented by a charismatic speaker, a compelling interactive application concept, a complex and aesthetically rich data visualization, there are surely possibilities waiting to be discovered.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Responses to “May 2013: Persuasive Formats”

  1. May 11, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

    Not forgetting the ‘elevator pitch’ that apparently all PhD students need to be able to do at conferences 🙂 I want to do mine in pictures… 🙂

  2. May 13, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

    Great post! In my corporate experience, PowerPoint was the go-to program for reports and presentations because it could be easily shared via email, uploaded to an internal file sharing site, printed if necessary, and used for presenting results to live audiences on a projector (both in-person and remotely). In fact, most projects concluded with a single PowerPoint file that played all of these roles.

    It was also pretty common to see PowerPoint research reports from both internal researchers (company employees) and external vendors (those we hired to do research) that exceeded 50, 75, even 100+ pages. I think this was a result of the fact that, at least at this particular company, the reports were being written for multiple audiences with different needs.

    For example, a report might be written for consumption by researchers and then by business and design strategists and/or executives. While the former might be more interested in methods, process, and other behind-the-scenes details, the latter were likely more interested in the executive summary and recommendations sections. There was often a push and pull in terms of what decision-makers really needed to know/what could be omitted versus what the researchers thought was important for others to know and what would be important for posterity and research design best practices.

    As to your point about communicating ideas in as little space as possible, the authors of reports did attempt to do this because time was limited. But, even though they would make just a few bulleted points on each page (to keep it simple and easy to read), this would actually lengthen the size of the report considerably. 🙂

    Transitioning into the business world from academia, I quickly had to acclimate to this new way of communicating to business partners so they could make good decisions and make them quickly. This is one thing I think grad programs could improve on – the training of students in communicating to non-academic audiences, since they will likely end up with jobs outside of academia as practitioners of anthropology, sociology, human factors, etc. My program at Memphis was good at this to the extent that many of our graduates go on to work for non-profits and community-based organizations, but the private sector has many of its own standards that I had to learn on the job.

    One thing I like about using PowerPoint is that in addition to images of the research process, participants, etc., is that you have the capability of embedding short video files (from interviews, focus groups, etc.) to play when presenting the results. These aren’t visible in a printed version, of course, and the files can be quite large, but they add a nice visual that goes beyond the standard still images and participant quotes.

    As a side note, the company I worked for actually had a couple people whose job it was to design “official” templates for reports that researchers could choose from. The templates had the company logo and colors and a legal disclaimer at the bottom of each and every page that reminded readers that they were prohibited from the sharing of the information within with anyone outside the company. So, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for creativity other than working within these predetermine formats.

    • jennaburrell
      May 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm #

      Amy, very helpful elaboration of PowerPoint practices. What you’ve described is totally consistent with my (limited) industry experience as well. Also, I (re)discovered this article by Nina Wakeford (also from EPIC 2006) on “Power Point and the Crafting of Social Data” (available here which critiques, defends, and also offers advice on PowerPoint as a way of delivering ethnographic analysis.

    • May 16, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

      Amy I you make a great point that it is important to see PPTs at the end of a looooong chain of fieldwork reports, some that are in hundreds of pages.

      The ppt is just ONE iteration of the fieldwork summary – the briefest and easiest one to pass around that can be easily changed by a team member.

      • May 16, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

        Yes – and ideally the audience that consumes the condensed versions of research can reach out to the people who did the work for more details. If my experience has taught me anything though, a lack of time can make it hard for anyone not involved in the research firsthand to care about all the “additional” stuff, especially if it doesn’t have a direct impact on business or design decisions. 🙁

  3. May 16, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    Jenna! I couldn’t agree with you more that academia is teh least flexible.
    I think academia and any kind of research institution that primarly measures success by publications are the LEAST flexible.

    I think one of the reasons why PPT is a dominant format in corporations is because PPT has greater impact than say a long written paper. What if academics/researchers were measured by impact instead of publications?

    • jennaburrell
      May 16, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

      I don’t think ‘impact’ and ‘publications’ belong in separate categories. I think part of the issue is time frame. I would absolutely defend the loooooong time-frames and pie in the sky thinking that you only get to do in Academia. Measuring impact always seems to be a quite short-term thing. I did some research (and published at some ACM conferences) on mobile computing as an undergrad over 10 years ago. That research is coming to fruition in the ‘real-world’ NOW in ways that can be traced back directly to that work I did. That is exactly how things were (ideally) supposed to go, the research was supposed to be imaginative, novel, and long-range…and certain things had to happen that we couldn’t exactly control or anticipate (namely, the iPhone). Tenure reviews always (in my understanding) have an element evaluating the scholars ‘impact’ but also balanced with quality of the work (as judged by experts), novelty, and prestige (things like journal reputation, selectivity). ‘Impact’ is measured (though pretty *inadequately*) by things like citation counts. Also, invitations to give talks, etc.

  4. May 20, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    I find this post fascinating. As a Human Resources professional I and many others in my field despise PPT presentations. Just this past weekend I participated an event (an “unconference” ) where one of the few rules for presenters such as myself was, “no PowerPoint decks allowed.” So to see an area in which it actually simplifies how one communicates information is amusing and refreshing.

    Thank you for sharing this, Jenna.

  5. May 21, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

    Nice post! Something it immediately made me think of is the talk “How to Lie with Design Research” by UX designer Dan Saffer: It’s a satirical “how to look authoritative, like you actually did research (when you actually did not), but as so often, good satires and pastiches are immensely revealing of the cultural formats they parody.

  6. Gary Colet
    July 30, 2013 at 9:02 am #

    As a ‘knowledge transfer’ practitioner in the commercial world, the use of visuals to communicate complex ideas is second nature to me. Selective use of video and presenting concepts graphically, including data visualisation can be powerful calls-to-action.
    Am I the only one to find Nina Wakeford’s article on the use of Powerpoint like the Emperor’s New Clothes – not a single image in a dense article extolling the virtues of visual communication?


  1. Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions | Ethnography Matters - December 9, 2013

    […] pick up from where Jenna Burrell left off in her recent post “Persuasive Formats” to interrogate the medium of writing as a privileged mode of expression of academic ethnographic […]

Leave a Reply