So you’re in the pub and this guy to your right is telling you about his astronaut sister who flew to the moon and he’s uber-excited about it, showing real energy and enthusiasm, but he ends up stuttering and stalling and accidently leaping ahead and then restarting and false starting until the narrative becomes so scrambled and unending that your head’s swelling with space junk. But to your left there’s another person who is telling you – in a strange symmetry – about their astronaut brother who flew to the moon one time. You can tell they’re also excited, but they recount their astronaut brother’s voyages in such an eloquent, enchanting, and euphonious way that you feel engulfed by cold black space and basically hear the crumbling crackling moon-rock beneath your feet.
Clearly, how we organise and present facts is crucial to processes of understanding. Both the bad storyteller and the good storyteller above had all the data necessary to successfully tell their respective stories. Both were in possession of the same information but only one could display and convey it in a mode that engaged and affected their audience.
Collecting data is vital to progress – it is the ‘one small step’. The ‘giant leap’, in that case, is the organisation of that data into an understandable form which inspires action. Once translated into a simple, comprehensible, and relatable structure, data becomes impactful, embedding learning on an individual and group level. Seeing where we are now and establishing where we want to go. Only after we examine and understand a situation can we map steps for progress, flexing our legs for a ‘giant leap’. The key to this giant leap – the thing which best enables cooperative and collaborative strategizing – is the visualisation of data.
Here’s an example of one of our Positive App’s visual metaphor tools, the Emotional Barometer (EB).
First, some brief explanation. The EB’s y-axis represents a spectrum of energy levels (from ‘high’ to ‘low’) and the x-axis a spectrum of mood states (from negative ‘-’ to positive ‘+’). It is divided into 4 quadrants, all of which represent a different strata of feelings, such as: engagement, dynamism, and motivation (top right quadrant); calmness, relaxation, and reflection (bottom right quadrant); despondence, melancholy, and sadness (bottom left quadrant); anger, irritation, and frustration (top left quadrant). When effectively used, individuals plot their emotions daily, writing a short description in reference to each emotion.
The above data displays the results from 564 entries recorded by clients across numerous sectors over the previous 4 months. As you can see, collecting and visualising such a wide range of data and then structuring it via percentages or the heat map gives a succinct and clear overview of the sample’s mood state.
Why Does This Matter?
The EB underpins everything we do at Positive because it allows us to objectively measure and map the strength of individuals’ neural circuits. Each quadrant represents particular neural circuits which influence how we think, feel, and behave – our physiology as well as our psychology. Time spent in each quadrant and fluctuating between them is normal, but becoming stuck on the left leads to problems. A process called neuroplasticity means that if we linger on the left and fall into spirals of rumination we actually strengthen negative neural circuits in the brain, making them default. We then struggle to flourish; our focus and productivity diminishes. However, by developing psychological resilience – a cognitive style which allows us to recover quickly from adversity and is substantial to wellbeing – we can strengthen positive neural circuits and, eventually, reinstate them as default.
The EB’s beauty and utility is its ability to graphically capture and relate a group or individual’s mood state, to lay the foundations for action, and then to map the success of change over time. Because of its simplicity and transparency, the EB’s visualisation tracks, measures, and makes graspable complex psychological KPIs.
The irrefutable benefits of visualisation are grounded by and couched in academic research. Visualisation has been proved to heighten humans’ input channel capacity, help individuals identify patterns in data sets, and – most importantly – enable “reframing and perspective switching”. If we change the way people think new attitudes can be cultivated, and thereby new routines, habits, and behaviours can become engrained. Thus presenting a detailed and coherent picture is potent: it can reshape old perspectives, establish imperatives for forming new ones, and ultimately radicalise the way an organisation works. It helps us understand where we are now, where we have come from, equipping us with tools for calculating and measuring solutions.
Visualise and Normalise
One unique aspect of data visualisations – like the Emotional Barometer – is their ability to illuminate and then normalise potentially unspoken or sensitive issues that might not otherwise come to light.
If the collected data is displayed in real-time to a group, there are two major benefits. Firstly, the visual representation doesn’t discriminate between or individualise the data. All the individual entries are anonymous, ensuring that hierarchies, biases, and fears of ridicule or judgement are eradicated. Not only does this remove potential victimisation, but it also provides an organisation with a holistic, contextual, and thorough graphic representation of their Emotional Barometry.
Secondly, the real-time and anonymous reviewing establishes an arena where certain sensitive, repressed, and feared emotional states can be normalised and de-stigmatised.
As in the graph above shows, for example, we found that 63% of sampled London professionals either ‘strongly…’ or just ‘agreed’ that showing signs of stress at work indicated weakness. When these anonymously assembled findings are redelivered and communicated back to the group in a lucid form, they enable the group to empathise with, understand the extent of, and normalise emotions that they otherwise might have repressed. Subsequently, a group’s emotional literacy is improved and emotional phobias can be confronted rationally.
Making the Unknown Known
Data is everywhere, scattered, hidden, disorganised – inside and outside; we can better understand ourselves and the world around us by using investigating, acknowledging, and using data intelligently. Visualisations enliven and mobilise data, transforming it into a launchpad for future strategizing. It allows us to normalise the otherwise abstract or intangible into palpable, approachable, and practical understanding, rocketing us off into the black void so we can step out onto that crumbling crackling moon-rock.
 Taken from 564 entries across Positive clients who consented to their data being shared.
 Heller et al. (2014).
 Eppler, Martin J., Platts, Ken W., ‘Visual Strategizing: The Systematic Use of Visualisation in the Strategic Planning Process’ (2009).
 Taken from the Resilience Framework Assessment (RFA) with 2,419 responses from participants across the U.K. of clients who consented to their data being shared.