The “Art” of Communication

I’m a drawer. (One who draws, not to be confused with one in a dresser.) Three sentences into any explanation, I start looking around for a whiteboard. I don’t know what I want or am going to draw, I just know that I need to do it.

Sure, I like changing databases into monsters, but that’s not the only reason I draw pictures to supplement many of my discussions. This article at Inc does a good job of identifying several advantages of visual explanations. Here’s the summarized list:

  1. Out of sight is literally out of mind
  2. Visuals allow the brain to take shortcuts
  3. Brains like the familiar
  4. Making hard stuff friendly improves communications

The last point is really the most important for me. If I’m describing a complex system to a peer, it takes a lot of words. It’s really easy to lose track of the pieces. Creating a quick doodle does a better job, and it lets the audience revisit the parts they may not understand by continuously examining the picture. It’s also essential as you communicate ideas to folks at different stages of the Dreyfus model–both higher and lower. A customer might not understand what it means to serialize an object to XML and send it via a socket connection, but they’ll understand what a box labeled “data” with an arrow means.

I like the first point that was made, too: out of sight is literally out of mind. If you diagram the entire system before talking about a change, it’s less likely that you’ll forget about a piece of it when considering the implications of the change. On a note unrelated to visuals, this is also important to keep in mind in any meeting that ends with actionable items. Make sure to document who’s responsible to do what. The verbal agreement is “out of sight” and, therefore, at risk to become “out of mind.”

Have you ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation where each slide has 100 words? It’s not good. You spend more time reading words than listening to the speaker. Even worse is when the speaker goes faster than you can read. You get 3/4 of the way through a slide without hearing a word from the speaker only to be cutoff as they move to the next slide. I really like the example of Jobs as a compelling reason to use visuals as shortcuts. If you show me a slide with a solid block of text, I’m far less likely to retain your message than if you were to show me a slide with a single word, phrase, or image. Keep the message in your slides clear and direct, and speak about the rest.


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