I see what you’re saying…..the power of visual stories

I have been fascinated by Stephen Fry’s new series on BBC2’s ‘Planet Word’ that sets out to explain the origins of words and language and how we attach our emotions and in some cases our very identity, to the words and phrases we choose to use.

“Be careful of the words you say, keep them short and sweet. You never know, from day to day, which ones you’ll have to eat.” Anonymous

In my neuro-linguistic training I learned that words are the vessels my thoughts use to get out of my head. Up to that point I had never really given words that much thought, they literally just ‘occurred’ to me. More recently I have noticed when working with leaders in coaching sessions, or with senior leadership teams in team dialogue, that some clearly chose their words very carefully, whilst others are far less concerned about the stream of consciousness that pours forth! Helping leaders to be clear and to engage others in meaningful conversation is part of what we do at sensei.

A great starting point is to be clear about intent. It can be proven very easily that the words chosen, regardless of how carefully, account for a very small proportion of the actual meaning of any communication. To put it microphonesimply the meaning you convey is better measured from the response you get and not the transmission you use. This comes as a shock to many leaders who believe that transmission and communication are synonymous, despite clear evidence to the contrary. They continue to insist that people are, or at least should be, crystal clear about the latest missive because they have received an email, or have seen a communication at a conference, or have had a copy of a presentation. This is a myth.

To demonstrate how easy it is to ‘see what I mean’ have a go at this simple exercise. See how many different meanings you can extract from this simple sentence.

’I do not think he was the one who stole my mobile phone’

By changing the tonality on certain words you can get this sentence to mean at least 6 different things. Without hearing the original intent then the possibility for confusion is huge. This proves tonality trumps the written word every time.

Visual StoriesAs we help leaders engage their people more effectively I am amazed how many default to the ubiquitous Power Point presentation as their preferred media of choice. It’s as if putting words on a slide somehow gives them more impact. I have some bad news, it doesn’t. What’s worse is the audience can read the words on a slide 10 x faster than anyone can say them. Is it any wonder most audiences look bored as they listen to most leaders talk.  To avoid this communication trap we have recently started working with our associate graphic artists Graham Ogilvie and Danny Dugdale. Danny and Graham help us bring to life top team events, strategy sessions and conferences. This has proved to be very revealing. The translation of what is being said into cartoons and insightful graphics transforms the quality of the discussions. As an overwhelming majority of us think in pictures we talk around the meaning, expose our assumptions and bridge into insightful discussions far more readily when pictures are around to act as a stimuli. This idea can be extended when communicating to a remote geographically dispersed audience.

‘One picture is worth ten thousand words’ Chinese proverb

Apple Steve Jobs tribute photoThis proverb was brought to life by Mark Long’s tribute to the late Steve Jobs. The London Times carried this powerful image on their front page as tribute to a man who has done more than most to demonstrate the power of graphics and pictures in helping us get meaning from our thoughts.

So why do pictures, cartoons and graphics feature so little in business communications and why do words reign supreme? Like a lot of things the blame can be attached to our schooling, but to be fair to teachers the dictionary definition does not help much; ‘Doodle – to draw aimlessly … to improvise idly’ Many studies show that sketching and doodling improve our comprehension — and our creative thinking. So why do we still feel embarrassed when we’re caught doodling in a meeting? Sunni Brown says: Doodlers, unite! She makes the case for unlocking your brain via pad and pen. Take 6’ from your busy schedule to listen to her views@. http://www.ted.com/talks/sunni_brown.html

I have discovered that when we introduce drawing into the discussions leaders think more clearly; can re-frame their positions easier; and use the images as props to bridge into more meaningful radical action conversations more readily.

Using creative storyboards to share strategic work makes the journey into the future come alive. Sharing the story using pictures helps people become more engaged and as a result they interact and contribute to the discussion. The leaders appear and sound more human rather than corporate clones and the impact on the resulting commitment levels are clear for all to see.
Yet leaders’ still need encouragement to communicate in this way such is the power of the negative anchor that drawing is a frivolous past time and has no place in business. At sensei however we often quote Mencken’s classic:

Our job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

With this in mind you will find us using graphic design a lot more in the months to come.

Malcolm Follos, Dec 2011