Different Strokes for Different Folks
Feb. 28, 2023
Last week I had the good fortune to be Nordic skiing in the cold, dry, pristine winter wonderland that is Canada’s Yukon Territory.
I was in Whitehorse, visiting my dear friend, Lucille, a powerhouse woman I’ve known for decades.
Lu and I met in September 1984 at the Dalhousie University student housing office. She was at Dal to study medicine and I law, and we both needed a place to live.
We moved in together—along with Margie who was doing a Master’s in library science—and we’ve never looked back. Lucille and I haven’t lived in the same place since our Dal days—in fact, we’ve probably only seen each other a dozen times since graduation—but we’ve kept in touch, and our bond is strong.
It’s often hard to pinpoint why some friendships endure while others fade away, but I think one of the reasons Lucille and I have remained such good friends, despite living thousands of kilometers apart, is our shared love of physical exercise.
Lu and I are both runners from way back, we both work out at the gym, and we both cycle—she on a mountain bike, me on a road bike. We both relish those feelings of mobility, strength and confidence that come from regularly moving these now-vintage bodies. And we are both determined to “just keep swimming,” as Dory says in the movie Finding Nemo. For as long as we can.
Now, I enjoy Nordic skiing, but I get only the occasional chance to do it, and so far, it’s not that-thing-I’d-rather-do-over-everything-else. But Lucille…Lucille is passionate about skiing. Throughout the winter, she hits the trails almost every day. Living in Whitehorse, a place that routinely “enjoys” a solid 8 months of snow, that adds up to a sh*t load of skiing. It’s no surprise she’s very strong. And very fast.
Some weeks before my trip to Whitehorse, it dawned on me that if I were to have the slightest hope of keeping up with Lucille—or at least maybe, possibly giving off the appearance of trying to keep up with her—I’d need some serious practice.
So, last December, I signed up for a 3-day XC Supercamp in Vernon, BC. Supercamp is an intensive, small-group learning experience with daily instruction (consistency is good), video analysis (humbling, to say the least) and excellent coaches (thank god).
My coach, a dynamic woman named Karen, was not only a great athlete, certified to teach downhill and Nordic (both classic and skate styles), but also a great communicator.
I was struck by the different images Coach Karen conjured up to help us understand and, hopefully, master the "diagonal stride," the basic movement of Nordic classic-style skiing.
One day, she instructed us to imagine gently slipping each foot into a cozy pair of bedroom slippers. Another day, she urged us to think about squishing a cherry beneath each foot as we shifted our weight from leg to leg. On the final day, she suggested we try the “sexy walk”—leading with our hips.
Coach Karen clearly understood that people learn differently. That not every image or metaphor is guaranteed to land the same way for each person. Instruction that resonates with me, that gives me my “aha” moment, might make no sense whatsoever to the skier next to me, and vice versa. Moreover, we often learn best when we're given the chance to absorb layers of ideas. Slippers. Cherries. Hips.
Business communication is the same.
I love words—and make no mistake, words are important—but sometimes, on their own, they’re simply not enough to convey your message as effectively as possible. Since we are visual beings—apparently, half the human brain is devoted to processing visual information—it makes sense to add visuals to your communications.
Here, then, are five ways to present information visually. Sometimes you can use these as straight out alternatives to your words; other times, you’ll want to add them as a complement to your text. It all depends….
1. Images. These include photos, illustrations, icons, logos, numerals and symbols. Using some type of image is one of the most obvious ways to enhance and invigorate your communication.
Whatever you choose, ensure the image supports, emphasizes or contributes to your message. Resist the temptation to merely decorate. And don’t go overboard. Keep it all clean and simple.
2. Tables, charts and graphs. Tables, charts and graphs are most often used to present numerical data, although you can use them for qualitative data as well. They allow you to summarize information so readers can quickly grasp the message, compare details, and understand trends and relationships.
Be careful, though. There are many different types of tables, charts and graphs: bar graphs, line graphs, pie charts, pivot tables, column charts, area charts, scatter charts, and the list goes on. Panic not. In a future issue of The Clarity Chronicles, I’ll provide you with some guidance on how to make the right choice with a deep dive into this exciting world.
3. Infographics. Infographics use a combination of data, information, graphics, icons, illustrations, fonts and colours to explain a topic in an entertaining, highly visual, and easy-to-understand way. Infographics are especially effective at concisely conveying timelines, processes, how-tos, lists and maps. They can also be used to raise awareness about a particular issue and to explain complicated technical information by breaking it down into different parts.
Creating effective infographics takes some forethought, but there are a number of good tools on the market, including free ones, to guide you through the process.
4. Comics. Comics are an effective way of making complex documents more accessible, especially for people with low literacy levels or those who aren’t fluent in the language of the document. Comic-style documents have been used to convey medical and technical information and even contracts! Legally-binding employment contracts in comic form were developed by South African lawyer Robert de Rooy in 2014.
However, unless you’re a visual artist yourself, to create comic-style documents, you’ll likely need to work with an illustrator. And be prepared for a lot of decisions—about the style, the interplay between the text and the drawings, the storyline and its turning points, and, above all, about the characters, including their age, gender, physical characteristics, whether they are human or animal and realistic or stylized.
5. Video. It’s probably stating the obvious to say that video is a highly engaging medium. Research shows that audiences process information faster by watching than they do by reading. And the retention rate is higher. Moreover, putting a human face on a corporate message helps foster trust and human connection. For this reason, more and more companies are using video for internal communications, to inform, train, and provide updates. But you can certainly use video for external communications too.
Videos can take a variety of forms: talking heads, whiteboard, animation. With a small investment in a ring light, a microphone and editing software, you can make simple videos yourself. For more elaborate productions, you should hire a professional video team.
So, with all these options at your disposal, how do you decide whether to use a photo, a chart, an infographic, a video or something else?
As always, I recommend you start with the definition of “plain language”:
A communication is in plain language if its working, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.
With this definition in mind, ask yourself three questions:
1. Who is my audience? What do I know about them? Are they fellow subject matter experts or members of the general public? What communication style will they respond to best? What level of detail and technicality is appropriate?
2. What is my purpose? Am I asking or telling? Am I seeking approval or permission, or am I sharing results and information?
3. What is my goal? What am I trying to accomplish? What do I want my audience to do after reading, watching or listening to my message?
As you can see, effective communication is not merely a matter of dashing off some text and adding a pretty picture. Au contraire. It’s nuanced and multi-layered.
But if you take a systematic approach, that is, if you carefully consider your audience and your aims, you should find the whole process much easier. You’ll make the right decisions—or at least better ones—about how to present your brilliant ideas, and for that, your audience will thank you.
And in case you’re wondering, I never did manage to catch Lucille. Most days she was a blur of arms and legs diagonally striding along the track, 100 meters ahead of me. But that’s OK. It certainly gives me something to strive for on my next trip to Whitehorse. To paraphrase Browning, “Ah, but a woman’s reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
When crafting communications, always start by identifying your audience, your purpose and your goal. To boost engagement and effectiveness, consider augmenting your copy with visual elements such as images, tables, graphs, charts, infographics, comics or video.