Do You Mind If I Get Graphic?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011
This week I was alerted to a skill that I had not thought about or heard about before. I was actually starting to think about this skill when I discovered that someone had already given it a name.

A journalist asked me to respond to some questions about what’s involved in career changes. In the response I composed, I wanted to call attention to my recent book The Sequel, so I emphasized the importance of accumulated knowledge. One of my purposes in that book is to balance the conventional emphasis on skills with this emphasis on knowledge, which is particularly relevant to career changers (as opposed to young people just starting out).

But the journalist specifically asked about important transferable skills, so I included a discussion that began by identifying communication skills as a key to employability. I mentioned that nonverbal skills are a significant part of these skills. When I first wrote that, I was thinking in terms of body language: being able to interpret the physical cues given off by people in conversation (or even when they’re not speaking) and being careful to project the right cues.

However, as I reread this discussion a day later I started thinking about other forms of nonverbal communication--specifically, graphics. If you follow my Twitter feed (LaurenceShatkin), you know that I’m very fond of Web postings with graphs and maps that communicate information about jobs and the state of the economy. A good example is a webpage at the Bureau of Labor Statistics that uses several kinds of colorful graphs--bar, line, pie, and scatter plot--to convey the latest statistics about women in the workforce. Because I use graphics in conference presentations and occasionally in my books, I appreciate that deciding on the most effective use of graphics is not as easy as it appears to those who haven’t tried it. Interpreting graphs also is not as easy as it sometimes appears. Interpretation obviously is a challenge if a graph is poorly composed, but even a well-organized graph can be challenging when it is based on complex concepts, such as the bar chart I found on Paul Krugman’s webpage this week, comparing the projected health-care spending of 65-year-olds under three scenarios, one of which is the budget proposed by Representative Paul Ryan. (The graphic is taken from a report by the Congressional Budget Office—PDF.)

In addition to data-based graphics, pictorial graphics can be very useful in communication. If you’ve ever played the game Pictionary, you know that levels of skill with this kind of graphic can vary widely. People who want to use this type of graphic have access to several styles, from highly realistic portraits to stylized cartoons to symbolic glyphs.

Even as I was thinking about these other nonverbal forms of communication, by pure chance I received a tweet from a friend, Nancy Millichap, about a skill called “graphicacy,” which was exactly the skill I had in mind. Think of graphicacy as analogous to literacy or numeracy. Nancy’s tweet linked to a blog entry by a geographer, Diana Stuart Sinton, which in turn referenced an article written in 2000 by two British psychologists, Frances Aldrich and Linda Sheppard: “Graphicacy”: the Fourth “R”? (PDF). The two psychologists make the case for teaching graphicacy to all schoolchildren to “equip them with a communication skill that will be useful throughout their lives.”

Obviously, some occupations require a high level of graphicacy than others. The need is greatest in occupations that involve the graphic arts or lots of data. But, like reading and writing, this is a fundamental communication skill that is needed at one level or another in all kinds of work. You will not find this among the skills in the O*NET database, but there is a case to be made for adding it.


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