Visualising data: Highlights from the 2020 European Meeting of ISMPP

Written by Eleanor Raynsford on Thursday 5th March 2020

The 2020 European Meeting of ISMPP marked its 10th anniversary, focusing on “Precision communication: achieving clarity, reach and value”. The meeting boasted a strong faculty presenting on a range of topics.

ISMPP-EU meeting is always a great meeting to attend to learn what's hot and what's not in publications and related fields and provides the opportunity to catch up with peers and former colleagues who you may not see often. It also provides an opportunity to meet with clients, both old and new, in a different setting than the formal meetings we tend to hold. It's an annual reminder as to why I enjoy my job as much as I do.

For me the highlights from the meeting were around visualising data. Jude D'Souza from Spirit Medical Communications captured the audience with an engaging presentation and slides. Although created in PowerPoint, it most certainly did not have the look of a classic PowerPoint presentation! His sharp presentation started with a controversial deviation from the meeting slide template, but made a point that the standard format of PowerPoint slides has not really changed substantially since PowerPoint's release in 1987. My sister was born in 1987—she's changed a lot since then, but PowerPoint hasn't and maybe it needs to…

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There is so much evidence that the way we review and digest information is changing, and I think it's fair to say that the traditional routes of medical publishing (e.g. journal articles and standard PowerPoint templates) need to evolve as technology and access to information advances. Don't get me wrong, this is not an anti-PowerPoint crusade, but as Jude's presentation showed, there are ways we can make our presentations more appealing to the audience than most of us currently do. However, the question is, who is going to be the brave individual to step away from the norm? Even with all the technological advances, scientific/medical congresses are still largely centred around traditional text and chart style presentations. Would your presenting PI feel comfortable having a slide with an image on it and no accompanying text? There is reassurance in familiarity, and not everyone loves giving presentations, so it can be a security blanket having your usual "Title and bullet point text" layout. However, the new wave of up and coming HCPs are more tech-savvy and may see opportunities to present data differently. Maybe in a few years, as this generation evolves into PIs and industry leaders, we will see a change and the standard template will find a suitable resting place in history. But for now, let's enjoy the odd occasion when someone is bold enough to stand out from the crowd and wow us with a slick presentation, and be grateful it's one less instance of “Death by PowerPoint.”

The other highlight of the meeting was the keynote presentation by David McCandless who described himself as an author, data journalist and information designer. If you've not come across David before, you need to look him up! He is the founder of the visual blog "Information Is Beautiful" and honestly, when David presents data, it really is beautiful. In society today, we are bombarded with information and data—everything has numbers associated with it. Even in publications, we think about metrics this and metrics that, but what do they mean?

David's presentation was a captivating array of graphical representations of data. While we can all understand that, in a given year, the UK Government will spend money on primary schools, transport and defence, it is not until you actually see the spending as scaled boxes in a "Billion Pound O-Gram" (available here: https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/the-billion-pound-o-gram/) that you start to understand what the amounts of money mean in relation to each other. Another fascinating graph visualised peaks and troughs of information appearing in the news since 1999/2000 and, while not wanting to give any spoilers, it was interesting and sobering to see recurring patterns of news spikes over the years.

Throughout his presentation, David made it clear that just giving numbers doesn't convey the full story, and I think this is an important lesson for us as medical publication professionals. The whole purpose of publications is to share data with the wider community, and what we can take from David's presentation is that perhaps a graph might be better than a table or a diagram better than words. I think it's something we all know but, again, it's a case of being bold enough to try something a little different. With so many journals having an online presence, can we afford to allow a higher figure count to help us visualise data and convey the importance of our data to the readers in a more compelling manner? There is already flexibility with congress publications in providing supporting information through QR codes on our posters, and perhaps we can incorporate learnings from David and Jude to develop more engaging oral presentations and supplementary materials to support the traditional manuscript format.

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