Visual Thinking Matters

Ask five people for a definition of visual thinking and you’re likely to get five slightly different answers. After all, visual thinking is a complex subject. But, at its core, visual thinking is about finding and sharing meaning through the use of visual tools such as graphs, maps, photos, drawings and diagrams. So why should market researchers care about visual thinking? Let’s face it, one of our biggest challenges is not conducting complex research, it’s about communicating the results in a meaningful and memorable way so that clients can leverage the insights in their business decisions. Whether you are a client side researcher communicating findings to stakeholders or a supplier of research conducting the study, visual thinking matters.

The Power of Visual Thinking.

I saw the power of visual thinking in action when I was helping a client with the implementation phase of a new segmentation. The research materials provided by their research agency were top notch. But, getting up to speed quickly and becoming an expert on a segmentation study when you weren’t involved upfront is a little challenging, to say the least. As I read through the 200+ page report the first time, I found information overload quickly setting in. So, I turned to one of my favorite tools of pen and paper to create some visual sketches about the data. By the end of the second reading, I had about 10 drawings that helped me understand the segments better and create meaningful connections within the data. The drawings also helped generate some hypotheses and potential areas to explore further.

When I presented the segmentation data at the first workshop, I wasn’t completely surprised to see that a few participants were struggling a bit with information overload. I wondered if they were visual learners who might benefit from a few visual cues. I moved to the whiteboard and recreated a chart that I had sketched to build my own deeper understanding of the data. I then started to create a visual on the board to introduce each section of the workshop. What happened next was almost magic. I found the pace and quality of the discussion picked up and participants started connecting the segments to business issues, often pointing to one of the graphics on the whiteboard to build their case. After that I started including the graphics in the workshop presentation materials. Within weeks, I started to see the graphics pop up in product development and strategy presentations and discussions. Now, that’s the power of visual thinking.

How to get started?

A good place to start is reading David Armano’s post on “How to Think and Communicate Visually.”

Next, I’d recommend investing in a few new books for your bookshelf and spring/summer reading list. These are books I turn to often when I’m stuck on a visual thinking issue.

Connie Malamed’s, Visual Language for Designers is by far one of the best books I’ve read on understanding the principles of how we process and store information. It’s the fundamental building block to understand visual communication. If you buy one book this year on visual thinking, this would be the one I recommend.

I also recommend two books by Nancy Duarte. Resonate will inspire you on how to put together compelling content, while Slideology guides you through the process of translating the content and story into a persuasive presentation deck.

If you are struggling with the mechanics of what should be in a quality chart, then I’d add a fourth book to the list. The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics by Donna Wong is a great book if you are new to creating and presenting data graphically.

Last, I’d say practice, practice, practice. It’s the only way you can truly improve your visual thinking skills.

Story Lesson From NASA

NASA archive photo of Apollo 8 Firing Room December 21, 1968

Story is a powerful tool that can draw an audience into a presentation by taking them on an unexpected journey into the consumers’ point of view.  If it’s a great story, it also creates new meaning for the audience and enters their long term memory to be stored and retrieved again.

So, why don’t we include more stories in presentations?

It can be difficult and time consuming to find and assemble a good story.  It also requires skills that may not be part of our core strengths so it’s a skill most of us need to learn.  And, while there are many great books and classes that teach the science of storytelling, we need a lifetime of observation, experimentation and practice to master the art of story.

I still buy books on the topic, but these days I find the most valuable lessons in storytelling come from watching great stories unfold.  One lesson happened quite unexpectedly while on a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   An early stop on the KSC tour is the Apollo/Saturn V Center Firing Room Theater.  This relatively low-tech, yet highly effective reenactment of a launch is a reminder of how a few simple techniques can help tell a compelling and memorable story.

1:  Set the stage.

NASA painstakingly recreated an Apollo-era firing room on a stage to show visitors where NASA employees and contractors monitored Apollo launches.  Each chair is draped with a jacket carrying the logos or names of the companies that were present in the firing room on launch day.  Surrounding the stage are large monitors and a countdown time clock.  The attention to detail on the stage immediately transports you back in time.  I remember being surprised at how primitive the computer equipment looked by today’s standards and yet how complex the engineering task was given the number of chairs and companies represented on the stage.

2:  Add context and shared understanding.

As you stand in the theater and absorb the details of the stage, a NASA presenter steps forward to explain that we are about to experience the final 3 minutes of the Apollo 8 launch, a historic mission with many firsts.  It was the first manned mission using the Saturn V rocket and the first mission to orbit the moon.  History and space buffs also know that 1968 was a tumultuous year in US history and that the Apollo 8 launch at the end of that year was the most watched event of its time.

The presenter didn’t make the assumption that everyone in the audience knew the story of Apollo 8, the problems that occurred in the previous unmanned tests of the Saturn V rocket or the events that defined 1968.  He took the time to share video clips that recapped the deeply emotional historical events leading up to the launch so that everyone in the theater understood the context of why tensions at NASA were very high on this launch day of December 21, 1968.

3:  Build creative tension.

With the introduction complete, the presenter starts the reenactment and the clock’s final 3 minute countdown begins.  At the same time the audio from that day between the firing room and the astronauts starts to play, lights on control panels light up and monitors surrounding the firing room stage display news footage from that day, all synchronized to the countdown clock.

You immediately feel the tension and excitement of that early morning in December more than 40 years ago.  Time slows and you start to understand how long 3 minutes can take to count down.  You become aware of the complexity of the systems integration and communication that needed to happen among many NASA employees and contractors for the Apollo 8 astronauts to complete their mission.  Most of all you gain a greater appreciation for how difficult this was to accomplish and what an impact the launch had on people who watched it live.  You understand that the Apollo 8 launch was an inspiring achievement at the end of a very challenging year.

4:  Create a lasting impression.

Once the simulation is over, you exit the theater into an enormous room and see a 363-foot Saturn V rocket on display, covering the length of building.  The rocket is displayed horizontally in sections allowing you to see some of the wiring and components contained within, leaving you with a lasting impression of its size, power and overwhelming complexity.  You start at the bottom of the rocket and as you walk the length and approach the top of the rocket, your final impression of the Saturn V rocket is the tiny capsule where the astronauts sat on launch day.  You immediately connect back to that morning in December when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders were preparing for the Apollo 8 launch and imagine what it must have been like when the Saturn V rocket launched them into space.

It’s been a couple years since I was at the Kennedy Space Center, but I still think back to this lesson in storytelling whenever I need a little writing inspiration.

  • Have I set the stage with enough detail to capture the audience’s attention and interest about the business challenge and research goals?
  • Have I added context to explain why this particular research story matters?
  • Is there an opportunity to create an unexpected journey using audio, video, narrative stories, quotes or images to help the audience understand their customers’ point of view?
  • What is the final impression that the audience should take from this story?

Photo:  NASA archive photo of Apollo 8 launch firing room on December 21, 1968


Find Your Chairlift

There’s a point in most quantitative research projects when you enter the saturation zone.  You become so immersed in the data that you start to feel a bit overwhelmed and it grows increasingly difficult to see the big picture.  If you’re under a tight deadline your first instinct is to press on, but I’ve found when I reach the saturation zone it’s time to step back, take a break and go to the chairlift.

What do I mean? A few years ago I was wrapping up a project while on vacation in Whistler, British Columbia. The more I worked, the less I accomplished.  That’s when I knew I reached the saturation zone and it was time to take a break.

It was a warm, sunny late spring day and the weather was ideal to take a chairlift up to the peak of Whistler Mountain to explore and enjoy the spectacular view from the top.  I spent an incredible couple hours watching the snowboarders and experiencing the sights, sounds and clean crisp mountain air.  I expected it would be fun and relaxing, but what I wasn’t expecting was a creative breakthrough on the project.

Turns out that what I needed more than anything was something to jump start my right brain thinking process after all that left brain thinking time in front of the computer.  As I was riding the chairlift back to the base of Whistler Village I started to think about the project waiting for me back at the hotel.  I watched the village grow closer and ideas about the project started flowing.  Something about the movement of the chairlift and changing views helped me to brainstorm and connect ideas emerging from the research.  I grabbed a sketchbook from my backpack and was able to capture some great ideas in the last 15 minutes of the ride.

These days when I reach the saturation zone and need to “go to the chairlift”, I grab my camera and head out for some physical activity like kayaking or hiking.  Anything that gets me physically moving and immerses me in an activity works.  So, the next time you find yourself in the saturation zone on a project, my recommendation is to take a creative break and find your chairlift.

Photo: © Goodwin

The Importance of Developing a Pitch

I received a call from a non-profit struggling to regroup after finding out they were turned down for a much needed and anticipated government grant to boost emergency services in the community. The non-profit had one shot to file a new grant application within 30 days but were unsure on how to proceed. They asked me to step in to review all the materials and help craft a new content strategy.

After hearing the non-profit’s story and reading through everything it became clear why the grant request was not funded. While the needs and supporting data were well documented, the application failed to answer a fundamental question. Why should this request be funded above all others?

Whether you’re asking management to fund a business idea or seeking funds for your non-profit, it’s important to develop a pitch that transforms facts and figures into a compelling story of why you should be funded. With the time clock ticking, I focused this assignment on 3 things to help the team find a new strategy.

Understand the needs of the audience.

I started with a scavenger hunt to find and review the available information about the granting agency and grant program goals. I also explored strategies from past winners to develop more clues. Then, I called the agency to clarify my assumptions and identify what was missing.  At this point I had a good understanding of the grant committee needs and in the process uncovered a few surprises that would help spark ideas and a new direction for the team.

Use visual maps to help build clarity and focus.

Government grants are notoriously complex excavations in gathering and synthesizing information. This grant was no exception with 30+ pages of application guidelines. To help move quickly from gathering to synthesizing, I created a visual map of the elements the stakeholders would be using to evaluate the grant applications. Not only was it eye-opening to see the grant process from the grant agency’s point of view, it also helped shift the non-profit’s thinking on their needs. We used the visual map as a jump off point to expand the ideas in the original grant request.

Leverage the team’s story.

With the visual map in hand, I spent time at the firehouse listening to the volunteers that provide fire and emergency services to the community. Hearing the volunteers’ stories helped bring to life the needs and challenges in the community in a way that data never could.

Combining the team’s stories with the new understanding of the granting agency goals helped us brainstorm and develop a 5 year plan focused on high-impact ideas.  The non-profit was able to file a compelling and comprehensive grant application within the 30 day deadline.

Photo: © Silvey

In Search of Meaning

Finding meaning in data is challenging.  Communicating that meaning to an audience can be even more challenging.  Rely too heavily on data and you lose your audience quickly to information overload or boredom.   Emphasize story or visual tools without enough data and you lose credibility.  The key is to find the right balance of data, story and visual thinking in order to create meaning.  Build these elements into presentations and you will also help communicate that meaning to your audience.  As an added bonus, your audience will be grateful that they are not enduring yet another presentation of bulleted factoids.

As a lifelong student of this topic, I’ve been amazed at the explosion of great ideas and information emerging over the last few years.  Innovative thinking is sparking a revolution in how we think about and communicate data to be more impactful and meaningful.  I think a catalyst for all this is the sheer volume of information we filter and consume each day.  Unconsciously, we use visual thinking and story techniques everyday to help process and identify patterns within data to create meaning.  The increased use of information graphics is just one example of a visual tool proliferating rapidly to help ease the information overload.

In this blog I’ll find, share and explore the best ideas emerging in visual thinking and story to help create and communicate meaning in data.  I’ll also focus on how I’ve applied ideas in the real world of compressed deadlines and limited resources.

I hope you enjoy exploring the ideas in the blog and find inspiration for building your business story.

Thanks for stopping by!