Why communicate visually?

This is a guest post by Aaron Stannard, excerpted from a new e-course that he has written for SmartDraw.com. The principles in this article tend to be focused on business diagramming, but are also applicable to mind mapping! – CF

If you were to ask every manager on Earth to list their five least favorite managerial activities, all of them would include “putting out fires” on their list. We all know what it’s like to have to put out a fire – a fire starts when somebody screws up and suddenly your project is in jeopardy. You, being the person in charge, inevitably have to swoop in and put the fire out, and putting it out requires a lot of last minute scrambling, long nights, weekends in the office, and plenty of stress.

Fires occur because of poor communication. Perhaps someone doesn’t understand why what they’re doing is important or who is actually responsible for what. But somewhere along the way some part of a major project or assignment falls apart and you, the manager, are the lucky one who gets to put it back together. It gets worse: bad communication is endemic, so you’re going to be putting out lots of fires. You move from crisis to crisis, fixing care of one urgent, mission-critical screw-up after another. You’re stressed, you have too much to do, you can’t go home early, it becomes harder to schedule vacations, and on and on.

But wait a minute – we identified the disease responsible for creating crises: bad communication. Rather than treat the symptoms of bad communication, the fires, why don’t you start treating the disease of bad communication? How can you communicate in a manner that makes your specifications absolutely clear and easy for your co-workers to remember?

A better way to communicate

How can we communicate both clearly and memorably? Do we simply repeat ourselves more? Communicate slower? No.

Instead, we should communicate visually. We’ve all heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and it’s true – what takes one thousand words to explain correctly can be described much more easily using a simple picture.

Not only is it easier to communicate something using a picture, but it’s also much easier for people to remember things that have been communicated to them visually. Psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University has studied the art of communication, and his studies have shown that:

  • People remember 10% of what they hear;
  • 20% of what they read; and
  • 80% of what they see and do.

Most people are visual learners; a recent study by the U.S. Federal Government suggested that up to 83% of human learning occurs visually. The study also indicated that information which is communicated visually is retained up to six times greater than information which is communicated by spoken word alone.

Managers’ problems can’t resolve their mis-communication problems with their teams by merely speaking more or writing more – you can’t scale failure into success. Instead, we should augment what we’ve been trying to say with pictures. It’s that simple.

What can be communicated visually?

Let’s say that you’re managing a project for your company; like any project, you have to come up with a project plan before your team can begin work. Most folks simply use their project plans to provide answers to the six classic questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How?

However, in project manager speech, these six questions usually look something more like this:

  • Who is responsible for this?
  • What needs to be done?
  • When will this be done?
  • Where will we focus our efforts?
  • Why is this important?
  • How are we going to do this?

So, how can you be sure that your answers are clear and easy to remember? By communicating visually. For instance, if the project you were managing were a construction project, you might answer these questions using the graphics pictured above right.

None of these graphics are particularly difficult to produce with today’s visual diagramming software. These types of graphics are called “business graphics” because they are simple and easy enough for the average businessperson to use; you don’t need to be an artist to be able to produce clear business graphics which communicate your plans clearly and memorably.



  1. Patty Hatch says

    I recognize that you probably do not want to ask more than one type of question (Who, What, When, etc.), but it’s also equally important to ask “How do we know we’re successful?” Perhaps combine the “How will we do it and how we will know we’ve achieved our goal(s)?” as one question?

  2. says

    I was an advertising manager at a large retail corporation from 1973 to 1990 and was involved in visual communications on a daily basis. I’ve adopted this thinking into my non profit work and use poverty maps, concept maps, and other graphics to communicate ideas intended to mobilize volunteers and donors to support youth mentoring programs in Chicago.

    I think there is great potential for people in the workplace, and in training schools and colleges, to learn these skills while applying their talent to help solve some of the social and economic problems in the world.

    On my http://tutormentorconnection.ning.com page you can see work being done by interns who come from Korea and other places.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *