Lindsay Pack

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, author and professional communicator Lee LeFever advocated for the use of visual communications to make potentially confusing ideas, products, and services easier to understand. Audiences are more visually literate than ever, he says, which means that “infographics, videos, and diagrams can do the heavy lifting of making explanations work.”

And he’s right. In an age where news is reduced to 140 characters and sites like Pinterest and Instagram are more prevalent than ever, we are becoming increasingly good at picking up on and using visual cues to make quick connections and form logical conclusions. While I’m certainly not advocating for a widespread replacement of the written word, it’s been my experience that, done well, visual elements can enhance our understanding of everything from climate change policy issues to the results of a 60-page research analysis to how to dance Gangam Style.

Below are the five tips I’ve found useful in developing visuals that convey complex topics clearly and effectively:

  1. Figure out what’s important – Narrowing down the information you’re presenting to your audience is an important first step. Ask yourself: “If I was riding in an elevator with a person who needs to understand this topic, what would I have to say that would make it clear to him or her by the time we got to the lobby?” While you might have the urge to talk about everything you know about the impacts of your latest nanotechnology breakthrough, too many details will confuse your message and your audience.
  2. Back it up – Just as in writing, qualitative and quantitative data are important to use in visual communications to help your message hit home. Be sure that the facts and figures you use not only support your points but mean something to your audience. Instead of listing the tons of carbon emissions your new technology will remove, compare it to the number of cars it will take off of the road or the number of energy-efficient lightbulbs it equates to using.
  3. Say it with images – Once you’ve decided what information you want to convey, think about ways that graphs, icons, and even photographs could be used instead of words. Seeing nine stick figures shaded out of ten has an immediate impact and makes your graphic easier for your audience to scan through, which keeps them interested while getting your point across.
  4. Make the connections – Basic visual cues can help your audience make logical connections that would otherwise require verbal explanation. You want to show that this group of emerging technologies will have more of an effect on the manufacturing industry than that other group? Use color and visual cues like arrows and brackets to differentiate between the groups and show impact. Also consider the organization and placement of pieces of information as a way to guide your audience through the story you want to tell.
  5. Try it out – Test your visual on someone who is unfamiliar with the topic. Can they understand what you’re trying to say in less than a minute? If not, ask them to tell you where they got hung up and use their input to refine your graphic.

While infographics and other visuals will never fully replace the role of detailed research and well-written content, they can do a better job of summarizing it. Making it easier for audiences to understand your topic quickly could be the difference between getting your point heard or having it ignored by an essential decisionmaker or an important stakeholder group. A well-designed picture may be worth a thousand words after all.