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Communicating Scenarios

July 7, 2011

The reason for creating scenarios is to help people anticipate the future and improve their capability to deal with it.  So the mode of communication needs to be tailored to the audience: for instance engineers are re-assured by well-researched drivers, whereas for public engagement a multi-media presentation stimulates imagination and dialogue allowing people to quickly understand each future.

In the sections below we compare a number of tools for communicating scenarios, which can then be considered when thinking about the method that connects best with different types of audience.

PowerPoint and schematic showing dimensions of scenarios  –  Schematic diagrams are widely used both in developing scenarios and communicating them.  They expose the underlying structure of the scenarios and ensure that the scenario space is covered.  The schematic may be based on a 2×2, a cube (as in the Health example below) or a radar diagram[1], etc.

A schematic plus a set of PowerPoint slides is the usual format used to brief and engage management.  Senior managers will usually read a short brief before a meeting, up to 10 pages, but need a structured presentation in addition: hearing the descriptions brings them to life.  However short the slot in a meeting, it is important for the group to have time to discuss the implications of the scenarios for the organisation, this helps to make it real for them.

A conventional PowerPoint presentation, even if dressed up with images, is not particularly effective at communicating a scenario set. Used in this mode, it can be used to provide the analytic framework which will set a context for a discussion on the implications, preferably with the stories also in hand.

Tabular descriptions  –  Many scenario sets include tabular descriptions, more detailed than fit on a PowerPoint slide.  These may be focused around qualitative descriptions or numeric data extracted from models, either computer based or “back of the envelope”.For scientists, a detailed tabular form provides re-assurance.  The values tabulated will depend on the interests of the people.  The Foresight 2020 scenarios for instance compare the UK’s GDP, growth and employment for each scenario[2], as well as covering social values, governance structures, role of policy, economic development, structural change, fast-growing sectors, declining sectors, unemployment, income equity and areas of conflict.A tabular form containing detailed numeric data often causes suspicion and questioning of the assumptions behind the figures.

Creating emotional connection  –  Interested parties will usually have pressing day-to-day concerns and preconceptions about “their” future and so need a form of briefing that will challenge their assumptions and thought patterns. This can take the form of

  • Stories in written form;
  • Presentation or capture using paper – flip charts or on the wall;
  • Presentation using multi-media images, music and voice over;
  • Playlets around the scenarios using actors.

Stories may be communicated via the written word, or images, or a combination.  The essential is that the stories be plausible and internally consistent.  They should allow readers or viewers to extrapolate from the story to the implications for their domain.Videos of “talking heads” are often used to describe scenario stories.  This allows several characters to discuss, for instance, why a scenario evolved as it did.  The difficulties are in providing a backdrop which is imaginative and allows the characters to take viewers into the future.  It has been successful however with focus groups as a way of briefing on scenarios.

PowerPoint can be extended from its normal use as above to create multi-media presentations which can be edited “on the road” to reflect comments during a programme of workshops or editing of the text or imagery.  However, PowerPoint has limitations on animations and synchronisation of sound tracks. Flash Media has advantages once a presentation has been finalised.  It retains the interactive control of PowerPoint and allows for better sound synchronisation. It can be placed on aDVDdisk, which can be more convenient (and reliable) for presentations if the appropriate software is available.

Images, text and sounds can be stored electronically, transmitted and re-used and so have advantages for a series of workshops with a substantially common agenda.  Multi-media presentations can also be accessed via the web.

Wall Drawing

Capturing graphic images on paper (as in the Figure above) during a workshop to create a timeline gives a sense of difference to an event and can stimulate people to think more imaginatively. It also increases participants’ sense of involvement if their ideas are captured and immediately “on the wall”.  However the storage and re-use of images captured on paper is problematic.

Playlets with actors work well with a “one off” event e.g. after a dinner, during a seminar, or as part of a scenario creation workshop, when actors interactively develop a story line with the group.  In the first case, actors work from a jointly agreed script developed with the scenario team.  In the second case, the actors work with the team to interactively think through the characters and timeline to populate the scenarios (Forum Theatre).  It can be set up as a one day workshop, with groups working on the different scenarios in the morning and presenting their plays in the afternoon, followed by discussion of the implications for the organisation. The use of actors generally creates a high level of energy and engagement in the process.  It also creates a very different impression which scores highly on the “water cooler” test i.e. it is much talked about afterwards.

Computer models  –  Computer models can be divided into two categories: “serious” models, used to explore inter-related scientific effects, such as the climate change models[3], and models intended to be used interactively to help people understand their environment, such as ‘Fishbanks’ which was developed by Dennis Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth.   Dennis Meadows is now involved with the Browne Centre which appears to have developed similar games[4]: These are all models which explore the implications of decisions, for instance over-fishing.Historically simulations have been based on system dynamics, or agent based models.  The processing powers needed and the programming requirements have in the past resulted in high costs.  This has meant that relatively few organisations have been able to exploit the opportunities of simulation.  But now, in parallel with the computer games industry, there have been major advances in simulation science that make real time simulation, often linked to business systems, a cost effect option for a wide range of organisations.

However, any model used to create a table needs to be transparent in its assumptions and support investigation by the reader of the effect of changes in the assumptions.  Computer models have failed to reach the utilisation widely expected a few years ago.  Games technology has developed fast, with confined worlds and well defined rules.  Setting the algorithms for realistic simulations, for instance in relation to environmental issues, has been held up by the problems of formulating the underlying science and the assumptions about interactions.

Scenario visualisations 

Image from a scenario visualisation for Nominet, 2011 

Scenario visualisation is a very effective tool to communicate complex textual information and abstract knowledge that underlies the scenarios.  To communicate ideas and to make knowledge from different sources and domains available to wider (target) audiences and project-participants, it is helpful to translate key elements into a visual image.  Making knowledge or ideas visual means that you make these more concrete by giving them a context and a clear reference-frame for further discussion or reflection.  It helps people to understand that knowledge and apply this in their own thinking.

Visualisations immediately communicate things such as an atmosphere or a “feel” of a certain scenario or future perspective.  Images work non-linear – as texts do – and communicate information by putting (and thus seeing) key-issues together into one frame (the image).  After a first glance or impression one can “read” further detailed information in the form of objects, persons or places, all telling about how a world might look like when certain knowledge or trends have developed in a certain way.

For most people it is easy to relate to images and to “read” them, and it offers the benefit of a shared experience of what is presented. This is a valuable quality for scenario work that can be characterised as multidisciplinary and where mutual understanding is an important factor for learning and getting insight and robust results.

Visualisations can be presented as still images, with or without text and with or without audio (voice-over or music), or in animated form where the sequence of images makes up the storyline.


Image from a scenario visualisation for Natural England, 2009 

To discuss scenarios further, contact
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