Lindsay Pack
Give Visual Communication a Chance
Lindsay PackAugust 27, 2013

A recent article about Jeff Bezos’s impending ownership of the Washington Post notes that the Amazon founder and CEO all but banned PowerPoint presentations at his company. Instead of slides filled with simplistic, hierarchical bullet points, Bezos requires his employees to write “narratives”—papers no longer than six pages—because in his view, the act of writing forces people to focus their thoughts and think them through.

Like most of us who attend regular meetings, I’ve been subjected to text-based PowerPoint slides that don’t seem to say much, so I can definitely appreciate Bezos’ desire to encourage clear thinking and communication from his employees. However, I can’t help but feel that his narrative rule leaves out one of the most important elements of a good presentation: visual communication.

In my last blog post I offered five tips for communicating with visuals, emphasizing the need to pay close attention to visual cues that can communicate without words, such as color coding and grouping. While it may seem simplistic to represent something through color or a picture instead of descriptive commentary, the decisionmaking process involved in both developing and interpreting such information can actually help it sink in more.

Illinois State University English professor Lee Brasseur notes that he teaches infographic development in his technical writing classes because the combination of words, realistic and abstract images, graphs, charts, and numbers combine to offer a clearer rhetorical point of view. “Like aesthetic works of art, infographics, upon study, communicate more complexity and, in many situations, the true essence of the abstract information,” he writes.

A White House infographic on President Obama’s climate change plan illustrates this concept nicely. It includes the following graphic: Climate Change Inforgraphic

Rather than reading through a lengthy description of these supporting facts, the visual cues and their meanings can be made efficiently, yet still effectively. The different shades of blue immediately distinguish between the U.S. economic sectors and the different types of emissions; percent emissions levels associated with each sector are evident; and the different sizes of the lines and parts of the circle indicate which emissions levels are higher and which are smaller.

The effectiveness of visuals in registering faster with audiences does not make them less effective; researchers have found that increasing the ratio of visual elements to words and tightly integrating them enables better problem solving and learning from documents. Jeff Bezos should take a closer look at the power of visuals and consider including them in his narrative rule; it might make his employees do the same during his presentations.