How to use visuals to communicate your ideas more effectively
Communication is at the heart of everything we do.
We communicate to explain ideas, hash out differences, inspire each other… and connect as human beings. However, it can sometimes be challenging to say what we mean using words alone.
As a result, we often leave workplace interactions feeling like we haven’t been fully seen, heard, or understood despite our best efforts.
As someone who has worked in the fields of coaching, leadership development and workplace conflict resolution for 20 years, I can tell you that the struggle to communicate well is real.
This very struggle is actually the reason why I became fascinated by visual thinking as a way to help bridge communication gaps. Nowadays, I use visual thinking in almost every aspect of my work, and it has helped me to improve my influence and impact beyond my wildest dreams.
Today I’m going to share some of the ins and outs of visual thinking with you so that you too can use it to create better results for yourself and your team!
Side Note: Common side effects of visual thinking may include greater joy at work, spontaneous insights, and increased doodling.
You’ve been warned :)
What is Visual Thinking?
At its core, visual thinking is the use of images, symbols, and pictures to convey ideas. It’s basically speaking the language of images (instead of just words). Many of us engage in visual thinking on a regular basis.
Using visual metaphors when you speak is an example of visual thinking:
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
“We need to connect the dots better.”
“I feel like I’m at a fork in the road.”
Around 60-65% of people are visual thinkers, meaning this is how they naturally process information.
In other words, visual thinking is an intuitive way for many of us to express ourselves, gain new insights, and learn.
Why Is Visual Thinking So Important?
So why exactly should you care about visual thinking?
Well, there are a few good reasons.
As people, we have a limited capacity to process information.
And these days we receive an overwhelming amount of it through emails, texts, and social media. This makes it extra challenging to grab and keep people’s attention at work.
Let’s be real. How many times have you zoned out in the middle of a text-heavy PowerPoint presentation?
That’s exactly what I’m talking about here.
Even when we do manage to capture our coworkers’ attention, people have different ways of processing and interpreting information. And often, words alone can’t bridge these gaps.
The great thing about visual thinking is that it can help us to overcome these issues.
4 Key Benefits of Visual Thinking
1. Enhances Engagement
Visuals are powerful attention-capturing tools.
Our brains have an innate preference for processing them because we’re hard-wired to process visual information quicker than text.
Visuals also increase engagement because when information is presented visually, it becomes easier to remember.
In other words, after your boss leaves your meeting and heads off to the ten other meetings they have booked that day, it’ll be easier for them to remember the fantastic points you made if you’ve created a clever visual.
They might even love your visual so much that they start to share it with others… who then also share it with others!
Wouldn’t that be nice?
That’s what happened to me when I started using visuals to express my ideas. And no, they don’t have to be fancy.
In fact, the simpler, the better.
Visual thinking simplifies complex ideas because visual information is more straightforward for our brains to decode. It also enhances clarity by making the patterns and relationships between things clearer.
According to Bay Atlantic University’s blog post, Show, Don’t Tell: What it Means to Be a Visual Learner, the human brain processes visuals a whopping 60,000 times faster than text by deciphering the visual elements simultaneously. On the other hand, when dealing with text, it has to decode elements in a sequential manner.
This is why it takes more time to process words than visuals.
The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.Albert Einstein
Moreover, simplifying complex issues makes it easier to help shift thinking (both our own thinking and other people’s).
3. Shifts Thinking
Seeing your own thinking on paper is like opening the door to a world full of new insights and clarity. This can lead to profound shifts in awareness and understanding.
Nowadays, when I encounter a challenging situation at work, I grab a pen and a piece of paper and draw it out.
As a card-carrying overthinker, the greatest gift this has given me is the ability to stop going around in circles in my mind. Drawing allows me to see where I’m stuck more clearly. And from there, I can then determine how to move forward effectively.
Visual thinking can also bridge communication gaps by serving as a common reference point for people with diverse perspectives. It’s almost as if it’s a “universal translator,” facilitating smoother and more effective communication.
In other words, visual thinking is not just the key to sharing ideas, it’s also the key to truly connecting with one another at work.
4. Boosts Creativity
Last but not least, when pen meets paper (or stylus meets screen), the creative centers in our brain light up, giving us access to more of our innate wisdom.
I should note that there’s a pervasive myth out there that if people are left-brain dominant, they’re more analytical, and if they’re right-brain dominant, they’re more creative.
According to Clay Drinko, author of Why Left Brain VS Right Brain Is A Myth (Backed By Science), our brains are more interconnected than this myth seems to imply. Creativity is triggered in many different areas of the brain. And it’s actually not determined by whether you’re left-brain or right-brain dominant.
What’s most important to remember is that creativity is based on a whole range of factors, and it’s a muscle that can be strengthened with practice.
Visual Thinking Isn’t About Art
If visual thinking still sounds strange, I get it.
Most of us haven’t drawn a thing since we were kids! So, how are we supposed to become artists now?
…and that’s precisely why I want to be clear here that visual thinking isn’t about art.
We often mistakenly believe that our visual work must be nice, pretty, and polished from the get-go. But that’s not the goal of visual thinking.
The purpose of visualization is INSIGHT, not pictures!Ben Shneiderman
You want to view visual thinking as a draft… as a part of the thinking process. It’s a means to convey ideas and information, not an artistic masterpiece.
In fact, those of us who are artistically inclined (like myself) need to work hard at remaining grounded in the purpose of visual thinking. I’ve had to dial it back when it comes to wanting my visuals to look “pretty.”
This is still a work in progress for me… what can I say :)
Visual Thinking and Inclusion
It’s also important to note that despite its benefits, visual thinking isn’t for everyone.
To figure out whether it might be useful to use visuals in a discussion with someone else, you can listen to how they express themselves. Do they use metaphors and analogies or describe things in a visual way?
You can also ask people directly about their thinking preferences – are they visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. and see what they say.
Interestingly, on the flip side, visual thinking can also be a path to inclusion for some. As Temple Grandin shares in Society is Failing Visual Thinkers, and That Hurts Us All, many people who are neurodivergent are natural visual thinkers. By embracing visual thinking in our workplaces, we provide a more inclusive approach for these individuals.
Last but not least, it’s critical to pay attention to the symbols we use when we’re creating visuals, as they may be interpreted differently by people from different cultures.
What’s most important is that everyone feels included and empowered in workplace discussions. If visual thinking can help with this, then wonderful. And if not, there are 5 other senses that we can tap into. (This includes my favourite sense, the spidey sense.)
So, are you ready to experiment with visual thinking at work?
Develop Your Own Creative Process
To start using visual thinking, all you’ll need is a pencil and a piece of paper (if you’re doing this the old-school way, one of my preferred approaches.)
And if you’d like to go digital, here are a few of my favourite tools: PowerPoint, Canva, SketchWOW, Miro, and Procreate. I had initially written a little bit about each of these tools in this post, but it was becoming way too long.
Just know that there are a ton of resources out there to help you learn how to use these tools effectively.
Yes, even PowerPoint.
I used it incorrectly for years until I read Nancy Duart’s book, Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations. (Highly recommend :)) She shares a wealth of information about how to set up your slides so that they support your presentation instead of detracting from it.
So if this post piques your curiosity, don’t hesitate to do a Google search and check out your digital options.
In addition to the tools to create a visual, you might also want to have a creative process. I’ll share my personal process with you, which can serve as a starting point for creating one that works for you.
I’m an introvert, so I like to mull things over and engage in deep reflection. As such, most of my visuals are created “offline.” This allows me to come back to meetings with a visual that feels meaningful to me.
Here’s how I do that.
My Visual Thinking Process
1. Encounter a Sticky Situation
It all begins with encountering a challenging situation at work. This is your starting point.
I usually grab a pen when I start to notice patterns in a few different sticky situations. My brain naturally wants the creative space to tease out what’s going on so that I can make sense of it.
2. Define the Visual Goal
Next, determine the goal of the visual you want to create.
What do you want to unpack or convey through your visual?
3. Explore Visual Options
Explore different options for your visual, keeping in mind that simpler is better.
Basically, you want people to be able to glance at the visual and intuitively understand what it means.
You can start by roughly mapping out how the different elements involved interrelate (i.e., is this a cycle, a Venn diagram, a hierarchy, etc.). And don’t be afraid to play with metaphors here.
This stage always makes me feel like a detective piecing together a curious puzzle.
4. Create Your Visuals
Now you’re ready to start finalizing your visual. Whether you’re drawing on paper or using digital tools, this is where you can let your creativity shine.
Keep in mind that moving from Step 3 to Step 4 can get messy, and that’s okay!
5. Test and Refine
Last but not least, put your visual to the test with your coworkers. Gather feedback, learn from their reactions, and refine your visual accordingly. This iterative process leads to more effective visual communication.
So that’s my visual thinking process in a nutshell.
Feel free to adjust it to fit your unique style and workplace needs.
Start Thinking in Pictures
I hope you’ve found this article on visual thinking at work helpful. If you leave with just one thing, remember that visual thinking isn’t a creative activity reserved for artists. It’s a powerful thinking tool for anyone in the workplace to use.
We all know that communication is at the heart of our professional lives, and visual thinking offers a way to enhance how we connect, collaborate, and innovate.
So grab that pen, explore those whiteboards, and check out the available digital tools – because visual thinking could just be your ticket to a more fulfilling professional journey.