Charts can bore us to death when they try to entertain us with decoration instead of data.
Sacha Baron Cohen (better known as Ali G or Borat), Emma Thompson and Roberto Benigni, who won an Oscar for his role in the Holocaust comedy (!) “Life is Beautiful”, all attended acting classes from the legendary Philippe Gaulier. His approach is brutal, but consistent.
Gaulier’s workshops are also open to non-actors and are an experience in their own right. Provided that you are not the person on the stage, you can enjoy Gaulier’s subtle art of short, painful criticism in his famous, thick French accent: “That was truly ‘orrible – adios immediately!” As a fellow student said, it is like getting a triple bypass without anesthesia.
On good days, the criticism is staged and the students themselves must decide if the performance that he interrupted with a strike of his drum was “totally boooorrrrinng“ or if they would be sorry to discover tomorrow that the actor passed away last night or if they would say, well, that everyone has to die someday.
The first lesson that Gaulier tries to teach his students is that we are all innately boring. Not being boring is true art form that requires lots of effort and practice. When bored, our audience – like Gaulier – is aloof and simply ignores us.
This simple principle applies whenever we need to grab the attention of an audience, for example, to convey a message.
Our methods, however, must be appropriate to the situation and audience. One of the students marked his performance with a piercing, drawn-out belch. Gaulier simply responded in a somber tone that burping and other bodily sounds are regarded as the pinnacle of comedy in Australia and certain Southern Pacific islands to the point where they are considered the highlight of an entertaining evening – but this does not apply for the theatrical stage in Central Europe.
This experience reminded me of an information graphic that I recently discovered in the acclaimed German newspaper DIE ZEIT, no less. Approximately 20 numbers were transformed into a puzzling chart that spread across the width of the entire page. To make matters worse, it used a photo-like image of a screamingly colorful blister pack of batteries dressed in the same subtle color combinations as Ali G’s ghetto look.