Autoshapes - how to look clever even if you've nowt to say

Recently, a mate sent me dashboard templates he’d seen - we download the templates, change words, and lo’, our reports are sorted. He sent them for my amusement, for they're awful, e.g. to show the 'Top Five Revenue Sources', adopt and adapt Figure 1. What the *@*&@?!?. (Some words are upside-down, so readers twist their necks to read them. Bad visuals really are a pain in the neck.)

There’s an ever-growing visual tyranny. “Let’s put our findings in an autoshape,” people say, “after all, some people are visual”. Which means, of course, some people aren’t (Figure 2 helpfully explains) - does anyone care about them?

Granted, some visuals are good. Photos of lonely pensioners – heart-tugging. The London Tube map – clarifying. Photos of a Formula 1 pit-stop crew – inspiring … no wait. Scrub that last one, it’s rubbish and cliched.

But many visuals are bad. In previous emails, I've attacked well-known 'reasons' for doing visuals - let's not repeat them here. Rather, let's work our way to a reason for not doing visuals. Imagine a CEO wants staff to up their game - "we need to improve our skills, attitude, knowledge”. And to help convey this message to staff, the Comms Team dutifully crafts autoshapes. See Figure 2. Circles. Chevrons. Triangles. Etc. Sophisticated. And – apparently – effective, they reinforce the message and help people remember it (really…? Of all the autoshapes you’ve seen, how many can you remember?).

No. Study the 'three-circles' autoshape at the top of Figure 3. It’s just a weird shape with words around it. Many of us remember the shape, but not the words. The myth needs restating – it’s not: “Visuals help us remember,” but: “We remember the visuals, not the words around them”.

In fact, the circles hinder unprompted recall. They fragment words, making it tougher to take them in. Circles compete visually with words – and win. Our eyes are drawn to the circles. Autoshapes attract us in, but distract us from content.

Would you do autoshapes at home? Now imagine our teenage son is lazy, dishonest, disrespectful, and we want more effort, honesty, respect. To help convey this message to him, would we do three circles (Figure 4)? We could scribble it out in just ten seconds. But we don’t (it would be weird if we did). Instead we connect with our son in a way he feels: we talk sticks and carrots (“behave well, we reward you; behave badly, we ground you”).

Yet at work we show circles. We apply lower standards at work than at home. Or - if you prefer - we think more intelligently at home than at work.

What to do at work instead though? Try acronyms (Figure 5). The first is: "Get SAK or get the sack". The second is: "ASK for promotion". They’re akin to the stick ("shape up or leave") and carrot (“shape up and get rewarded”). Which is best? It depends on your approach. Regardless, both are more memorable than the autoshape. 

Maybe I’m being harsh on circles. After all, when presenters show the Skills-Knowledge-Attitude circles, they can talk through its context. However, there’s no great context to grasp other than: “We need these attributes”. Just four words. In fact, let’s give not just context but the whole story: “We need skills, knowledge, attitude”. It is said that a picture paints a thousand words, yet these five words replace the entire visual. If we don’t know the five words, the visual means nothing. If we do know them, the visual adds nothing.

To conclude, it's been such fun since the 1980s: we’ve had a great time creating funky stuff to mask flabby thinking or paucity of content. Not got much to say? Worried our work looks a bit… empty? No worries, pad it out with triangles, chevrons, jigsaw pieces, weird arrows. That fools people. They may even think we are clever. After all, chevrons-in-a-line ‘prove’ our ideas are logical and linear. Venn diagrams ‘prove’ they’re unified, interconnected. Circle-of-arrows ‘prove’ they’re iterative. Visuals spare us the tiresome task of logic and thinking.

It gets worse though. Often, visuals prevent us thinking. We’re too busy crafting autoshapes to ponder something properly. I’ve seen three 'overlapping circles' that don’t even fully overlap. What’s that about then, eh? And many circle-of-arrows are incorrectly circular. A poster at my local hospital unnerved me - apparently, I register, do tests, await results, then (cue arrow that wrongly linked back to the start), register again. I was stuck forever in a permanent loop.

One last example. A 52-page consultation document included the comment: "Management accounting can make a significant contribution to sustainable success, as illustrated below" (see Figure 6), and its Figure was titled: “The case for Global Management Accounting Principles”. But it's not a 'case'. It’s a weird shape with nouns on it. No verbs. It doesn’t persuade. Then again, maybe I could try this approach in my emails... rather than crafting a case against autoshapes, I could instead merely list nouns and adjectives: “Clarity,  Goals, Communication, Better Engagement”. Does that work for you? I suspect not.

Three last thoughts. (1) Here’s a great article by the Harvard Business Review, entitled 'It’s Time to Retire ‘Cr*p Circles’; (2) cast your mind back to Figure 1 – it has icons, and a future email will rant about these; (3) if the ideas in this email don't resonate with you, don't buy my book. It's over 300 pages of similar thinking and logic, and will probably annoy you. Stick to your autoshapes instead.

And if this email's ideas do resonate, buy my book, it will be right up your street. Click here for content, testimonials, how to order, etc. It's £25 plus P&P, and it could just change your career.

A puzzle (it’s visual, but don’t read anything into that): it drove me mad, I kept getting it wrong. Answer next month.


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