Part 1: introducing the series; popping myths

This email is the first in a series of emails on ‘communicating’. How to persuade and convey in both reports and talks.

Imagine we’re giving a talk to bosses on our plan for Issue ABC – and to help bosses grasp ABC’s complexity, we show a photo of a jungle (someone really did this)… after all: (1) “Visuals have impact”; (2) “A picture paints a thousand words”; (3) “It helps convey complexity”; (4) “How else can I convey that ABC is complex?”; (5) “It helps bosses see my story”; (6) “It keeps them awake”; (7) “We absorb stuff visually; (8) “I need to engage bosses”.

Eight comments. Seven are fallacious. This email gives reasons why. My previous emails have already given some of the reasons, hence today, I keep it brief. Also, any highlighted words below are click-throughs to previous emails for more. Today, we draw the reasons together in one place. Let’s start:

(1) Visuals have impact: some do. To collect money for sick children, show photos of sick children. But at work, those aren’t the visuals most of us show. We show icons. Autoshapes. Photos of jungles. Or of rowers ("teamwork!"). They don’t help, they hinder. Autoshapes hinder unprompted recall. Icons create puzzles to decode. Rowing photos don’t inspire (“That rowing photo did it for me – we must work together better!”). Rather, they show the presenter is unimaginative, cliched - mocks such photos wonderfully.

(2) A picture paints 1,000 words; (3) It helps convey complexity; (4) How else can I convey ABC is complex? Hmm - the photo conveys not 1,000 words, but just two: “It’s complex”. Wow. As for “how else can I convey it’s complex?”… well, you just have. “It’s complex”. That does it. Job done. We do overcomplicate at work.

(5) It helps bosses see my story. Bosses don’t care about your story. They want your answer. Story-telling is a power trip – when bosses tell us their story… their journey, we sycophantically say it inspires us. When we tell them our story, they tell us to shut up and cut to the chase. It’s like out-takes in movies – if lead actors muck up, everyone laughs. If extras muck up, they’re sacked. 

(6) It keeps them awake. It’s a vicious circle - we fear our talk is dull, so we add stuff – so our talk is longer and more likely to bore. Ironic. I saw someone talk for 10 minutes on how £1m buys less now than 30 years ago, and to ‘keep people awake’, he showed photos of Rolexes, yachts, etc. But it took 10 minutes to state the obvious (“inflation!”), so his talk was dull. What to do instead? Say it in 5 seconds (“a pound is worth less than before”), then say why this matters.

(7) We absorb stuff visually. Do you listen to podcasts? The radio? They’re not visual. Also, people tell us we absorb stuff better if it’s visual, yet they don’t use visuals to convey this. Ironic. Someone told me: “Visuals work… imagine Ikea instructions without diagrams”. Hmmm… imagine books without words. Tip: when you hear ‘truisms’, don’t seek confirmation bias. Look for alternative evidence (e.g. “attention spans are shorter” - yet people binge-view…?). Strive to see what is really happening.

(8) How can I engage my audience? This is the valid comment - it doesn’t confuse involve and engage. Yes, as delegates, we want to be engaged, but many of us don’t want to be involved. We don’t like contrived attempts to get us talking. We don’t want to ‘do’ flipcharts. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable or look dumb. So as a presenter, don’t strive to involve. Strive to engage. Get delegates thinking.

Then again, maybe a jungle photo is OK... after all, at worst, it’s harmless decoration that accompanies our words. Also, we’ve all seen talks that show arresting photos. Yes, but more often, photos worsen talks. To understand why, think what happens when we prepare talks. We ponder slides. We think about what photos to show. Which uses up our ‘brain space’ - space that should be put to better use (more on this later in this email series). Also, photos delude us. The jungle slide fools us into thinking we’ve conveyed. Persuaded. No. We’ve just shown a picture.

And it happens often. As someone recently said to me: “Putting pretty pictures into reports and talks – my staff can do that – but they can’t persuade or convey.” Sums it up well.

What to do instead? As we see in Part 2 of the Series, it depends. Stay tuned.

That's it for this email - and if those last five words confuse you, maybe I should show a photo of an athlete crossing a finishing line.


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