Photo of different kinds of graphs

Hannah Fry: Making the complex accessible

I’ve long been a fan of the weekly “Lunch with the FT” column. It is a Saturday ritual to sit down with a cup of coffee and gain insight into that week’s interview subject. Earlier this year, I was fascinated by the interview with Hannah Fry,1 an accomplished mathematician whose achievements are numerous. Not only is Fry the author of several books, the host of a TED Talk on “The Mathematics of Love” that has been watched by more than 5.4 million people, and a prodigious presence in all manner of media channels, but Fry is also a gifted communicator.

Fry excels at identifying patterns in data about a range of complex topics, from pandemic curves to interpersonal relationships and dating. She has conquered the challenge of making science and data compelling — and even fun. Could anything be more relevant in an age where science is politicized and data is weaponized?

I see three powerful intersections between Fry’s research and the evolving nature of communications, which are pertinent for our field in 2022 and beyond.

FIRST: Infuse humanity into data science. How we convey a wealth of data in a relatable manner makes the difference between understanding and dismissal. Fry says it can be “easy when you are working with data to just think of people as though they are numbers.” She uses the comparison of “90% versus 1 in 10” to underscore how a small shift in perspective can dramatically alter how people receive information. There is tremendous power in personalizing data and giving it a narrator who makes the complex accessible. This is one of Fry’s many superpowers.

SECOND: “Problem-frame” in a thoughtful manner. Today, we have access to more information, stories and data than ever. But, as communicators, we need to ensure that we look at it through the right aperture, ask challenging questions, and consider emergent patterns. There is a risk that people pick and choose information to tell their version of a story rather than looking at the full picture. Can we develop and test a hypothesis? How can we stay true to the data while bringing it to life in the most compelling fashion?

THIRD: Appreciate the power and risk of exponential growth. Fry notes that patterns around explosive growth can be hard to see early on, which is one of many challenges around how the ongoing pandemic is portrayed. This is an apt — and perhaps cautionary — analogy for communications more broadly, which has experienced exponential growth in the number of channels, platforms and sources of information. While this has unlocked astonishing possibilities for individuals to become creators, causing new voices to be heard and making access to information more equal, its risks have become tremendously apparent in the rise of fake news and misinformation. Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer reported that social media was the least trusted information source and that only 25 % of people practice “good information hygiene,” which is defined as engaging with news, avoiding echo chambers and vetting information sources. How can we mitigate bad actors and help people find trusted information sources?

Fry’s approach to bringing the complex world of math and data to life through relevant stories represents where the field of communications needs to evolve. Our field is going to increasingly depend on making sense of a world of data and algorithms. As communicators, we have a responsibility to seek truth, transparency and humanity; we must ask difficult questions, frame information in earnest, and advocate for accuracy.