Watching the political conventions the last couple of weeks left me with many thoughts and even more questions related to the past, present, and future of the United States. But politics aside, one major question keeps bouncing around between my ears: why all the hours of "telling" without even one moment of "showing"? Unless you count that chair.
A large part of what I do as a strategist and architect is to make strong arguments for how to realize a more meaningful and rewarding future. These arguments have insights and data at their core, but are carefully wrapped in storytelling to engage decision makers. Yet, I've also learned through trial and error that my words need to be accompanied by engaging visuals to make the greatest impact. Whether it's a photograph that teases out a desired emotion or a well-designed diagram that makes a point clearer and more memorable, visuals add rhetorical weight and make arguments feel more complete.
Science backs this up, it turns out. A couple of years ago, Tom Wujec put it this way:
“Cognitive psychologists now tell us that the brain doesn't actually see the world as it is, but instead, creates a series of mental models through a collection of “Ah-ha moments,” or moments of discovery, through various processes. The processing, of course, begins with the eyes. Light enters, hits the back of the retina, and is circulated, most of which is streamed to the very back of the brain, at the primary visual cortex….“We make meaning by seeing, by an act of visual interrogation. The lessons for us are three-fold. First, use images to clarify what we're trying to communicate. Secondly make those images interactive so that we engage much more fully. And the third is to augment memory by creating a visual persistence. These are techniques that can be used to be—that can be applied in a wide range of problem solving.”
Clarification. Engagement. Memorability. Yes, seeing is believing.
Which brings me back to the political conventions. In an age when conventions have become increasingly “made for television,” I'm surprised neither party has latched on to pairing visuals with the verbal barrage. Yes, there were short videos shown between some of the speakers, but those come across as fluff, not substance. A talented information designer would have a field day bringing to life many of the stats thrown around in the average speech. A gifted visual storyteller could work magic pairing images to emphasize points of differentiation.
Further reflection may reveal why a visual approach would be ineffective or inappropriate in the context of political conventions. (Another director here at Adaptive Path put it bluntly: “Fact checkers would have a field day.”) But, and this is the whole point of this post, visual storytelling IS effective and disruptive in a corporate setting. At Adaptive Path, we put a lot of time and effort into the visual presentation of ideas. We create visual arguments and iconic artifacts that seek to build a shared understanding (e.g., experience maps) or to make possible futures tangible (e.g., storyboarding and prototyping). Strong information design and visual design help us to clarify insights, to engage stakeholders and spur dialogue, and to carve out a memorable place in the minds of decision makers amongst the din of competing problems and solutions. In short, it makes us more effective consultants (and we have more fun along the way).
Corporations often don't lack for ideas. They lack for leaders who can package their ideas to incite action and drive change. If you want to make an impact on your organization, I encourage you to use your design skills (or work with a designer) to stop telling and start showing.