This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
One of the managers I admire tries to explain concepts by using a marker pen and whiteboard – in his office or in a larger venue. Vincent thinks visually. I look at what he has quickly presented on the whiteboard in his office and marvel at the way those concepts have become clearer through his use of visuals – diagrams, graphs, and little flow charts. What’s more – the whiteboard images can be quickly printed and circulated as a tangible outcome of the meeting’s discussion.
Vince’s visual communication reminds me that people are visual creatures. It is the most powerful sense, and can be employed can be employed for many communication purposes.
Image: US Atlas-Agena rocket launches on 16 March 1966 to begin Gemini 8 mission to orbit Earth
with astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott on board. This type of image would be very effective
as a visual metaphor of tremendous team capabilities.
Unfortunately, managers often tend to fall back on traditional methods of communication: emails, reports, PowerPoint presentations and meetings. But these methods can be more effective by using visual material for greater impact.
(Confession: to my regret I am so busy I don’t have time to follow my own advice in this newsletter. I just don’t have time to spend on labor-intensive extras such as preparing infographics and diagrams. Using existing photos and similar material is about my limit, unfortunately.)
Traditional methods are mainly text-driven—relying heavily on the written or spoken word. However, most people are visually oriented – they learn best from visual material to absorb complex information such as strategic goals, work processes, systems or plans for implementing organizational change. Even more important, text alone is ineffective at helping workers see the impact on them individually and how they fit into the plan.
You can improve change effectiveness by using more visual material such as maps, icons, storyboards, charts and matrices to convey information quickly and effectively.
Research shows that about 60% of adults are visual learners. Yet managers often fail to take advantage of visual material to convey the process changes, system changes and behavioral changes that are necessary to improve their organization’s performance.
Research shows the benefits. For instance, Robert Horn at Stanford University, used studies from the Wharton School of Business, and other academic and business studies found:
Other research supports these findings. The conclusion, according to the American Management Association, is:
In view of all this, visual aids should be included in every change program. The impact on management’s ability to implement change quickly is direct, obvious and measurable. Moreover, in a multi-cultural workforce, visual images are even more essential in ensuring that information is understood and acted upon.
Communicating about workplace safety is really about change communication – because we want employees to change to a safer attitude and behavior pattern. US communication expert TJ Larkin talks about achieving better safety through more visual communication in this presentation.
Visual language is also a management and behavioral tool that can be valuable for dealing with organizational issues and identifying actions for improvement. Even something as simple as adding color to a chart increases the effectiveness of the chart. For instance, using green to represent desirable results and red to represent undesirable, leads to participants starting to refer to the various outcomes by colors. Color, then becomes a form of verbal/visual shorthand that helps reinforce the message and streamline the group’s actions. Overall, visual support provides a valuable, but easily overlooked, methodology for executing a wide variety of critical management functions.
Here are some great sources for free stock photos, including art collections, that you can access to enhance your communication effectiveness:
This article was updated in February 2020.
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