G U E S T A R T I C L E
I think in pictures and speak in analogies.
And I’m not alone. It’s estimated that 65% of us are visual learners, compared to 30% who are auditory learners and 5% who are kinesthetic learners.
In conversations, I will frequently grab a piece of paper and draw the picture that’s popped into my head. Or I’ll offer a comparison, saying “oh, that’s like this.”
Doing so helps me process data and information, simplify complex problems, and understand concepts. It also helps me to explain ideas to others and to communicate more quickly than with words alone.
Despite the fact that so many of us are visual learners, words—not pictures—continue to dominate in the workplace. Much of our communication is via email. We fill presentation decks with words. Even our documents lack basic design features that would facilitate comprehension, like colour, font and clever use of white space.
Some mistakenly try to insert visuals in their decks or documents, including a picture or clipart just because. But needless images, like superfluous words, don’t add to communication; they detract from it.
In fairness to many employees, they develop documents but rarely get a glimpse into how the materials they produce are used or how they’re interpreted by readers.
As an executive, I’ve had 20 years of experience preparing and presenting documents, presentations and spreadsheets to senior leaders. Good visuals beat words any day in facilitating comprehension, promoting discussion and enabling decision-making.
Why visuals rule (or should)?
In Studies Confirm the Power of Visuals in eLearning, marketer Karla Gutierrez explains why images are so powerful:
- Visuals are more memorable than words. Gutierrez explains that words are processed by our short-term memory and if the words are not linked to an image, they will go in one ear and out the other. Visuals, on the other hand, go directly to long-term memory. People will retain only 10-20% of ideas communicated through written or spoken words, but 65% of ideas communicated through visuals.
- Visuals can be comprehended more quickly than words. Gutierrez says that “Visuals are processed 60,000X faster in the brain than text.” She adds: “90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual.”
- Visuals improve comprehension. They have been found to improve learning by up to 4 times.
- Visuals trigger emotions in ways that words alone do not. Gutierrez says that because images and emotions are processed in the same part of the brain, they elicit faster and stronger reactions than words.
Given what Gutierrez says about visuals, it’s little wonder that children love drawing. And yet, somewhere in our education, art fades from the curriculum, leaving writing as our primary means of communicating information.
It’s not surprising, then, that few of us develop the ability to effectively convey concepts through images. And it’s not a skill we routinely seek in competitive processes. While I’ve seen “ability to communicate orally and in writing” on just about every job poster, I can’t recall ever having seen “ability to communicate visually” in a statement of merit criteria.
Why we need more visuals?
Data-journalist David McCandless explains in his TED Talk The beauty of data visualization how diagrams allow us to see previously unforeseen patterns and connections. He says that it’s not enough to present data in absolute numbers. Those numbers need comparisons and context to be meaningful.
So the first Iraq War cost $60 billion. And the second Iraq War plus Afghanistan cost $3000 billion. And the 2008 financial crisis cost $11,900 billion. Those numbers are meaningful when juxtaposed and are even more memorable when presented with shapes representing the relative size of the dollar figures.
Now for an example with context. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the US spends more on the military than any other country. But it’s also the biggest economy in the world. When military spending is put in the context of a country’s earnings, the US drops to 8th in military spending as a proportion of GDP. Similarly, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that China has the most soldiers. But it’s also the most populous nation on the planet. When we look at the number of soldiers per citizen, China drops to 124th. Does that change your opinion? McCandless quotes the brilliant Hans Rosling, who said, “Let the dataset change your mindset.”
McCandless compares the speed at which our various senses process information: Our sense of sight is the fastest, having the same bandwidth as a computer network. By comparison, our sense of hearing processes information about as quickly as a hard disk.
“The eye is exquisitely sensitive to patterns in variations in color, shape and pattern,” he says, calling this the language of the eye. “If you combine the language of the eye with the language of the mind, which is about words and numbers and concepts, you start speaking two languages simultaneously, each enhancing the other.”
I’m not suggesting that we should present information exclusively through images. However, I would argue that we would all benefit from honing our ability to both think and communicate in images.
About the author:
Jennifer Hollington is senior executive in the Canadian public service who writes a weekly blog called Café Jen on the theme of success at work. You can reach Jennifer using our contact form.
Other article(s) from the author
Productivity vs Learning
(published on August 21, 2016)
Copyrighted Material: Article has been produced with permission from the author. Title picture is not associated with the original writing and is property of ASQ Ottawa Valley Section.
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