Using Visuals

What you'll learn to do: Incorporate meaningful visual media in business messages

We’ve already learned what a great visual looks like: it’s clear, clean and simple, uniform, persuasive and on brand. We know we have graphs, charts, images, and even video at our fingertips, all great tools to help us communicate our story. Now, all we need to do is incorporate these visuals into our various methods of communication and let them get to work!

This section will explore how visual media and text relate to one another, how to evaluate effectiveness, and how to reexamine the visual media you’re using when it doesn’t work. We’ll look at how businesses use visual media in their reports, presentations, speeches, and other documents. We’ll review several examples and judge whether their visuals were used correctly and, if not, what they could have done better.

Learning Outcome

  • Identify appropriate and professional visual representations of information for a business report
  • Identify effective use of visual media in presentations, documents, spreadsheets, and messages
  • Describe the process of revising and enhancing visual media to create impact
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of a message

Visuals in a Report

Reports don’t end in high school, unfortunately. In fact, businesses that are publicly traded usually prepare an annual report each year for their stockholders and investors. That annual report might be a hundred or more pages of highly detailed information, including strategic plans and financial data, and will certainly include visuals.

Practice Question

Let’s take a look at a few annual reports from well-known companies. We’re going to study what they’ve written, the visual media they’ve chosen to use to support their written word, and if that choice of visual media meets our visual media standards of clarity, consistency, relevancy and persuasion.

Nestle Global: Images in Reports

Nestle is the world’s largest food and beverage company, and their mission of "Good Food, Good Life" is to provide consumers with the best tasting, most nutritious choices in a wide range of food and beverage categories and eating occasions, from morning to night.

The cover of Nestle's 2017 Annual Review is subtitled, “Nestle. Enhancing quality of life and contributing to a healthier future.” Do the images they choose convey that idea? Here are examples from several pages of the report:

Screenshot of Nestle's 2017 annual review.Screenshot of Nestle's 2017 annual review.Screenshot of Nestle's 2017 annual review. Are these images clean, clear, and simple? They are simple images, with very little to look at except the young people or the products themselves, so we can say they are clean, clear, and simple.

Are they uniform? The two larger shots feature the children shot from about the knees up, with only a small amount of background around them. The smaller group of four images on the middle page feature three products shot at about the same distance, with similar shot compositions (the product and other items used with that product). The fourth picture breaks that pattern--and draws your attention--by showing some young people enjoying a fourth product. Finally, all four images are square with two curved corners on the right and 90 degree corners on the left. These images are consistent and uniform.

Are they on brand and relevant? These images show a series of products and happy young people. If they’re trying to convey a good quality of life, they seem to have done so. These children are well dressed, playing sports, enjoying the benefits of friendship. And the fact that these subjects are all young people drives home the idea that Nestle is contributing to the future. So we can say these images are relevant and on brand.

Are they persuasive? We can decide that by measuring how the image supports the message in the text. Let’s look at the first one, “Our Strategy.” The text says,

Through enhancing quality of life and contributing to a healthier future, we aim to deliver sustainable, industry leading financial performance and earn trust…
In the photo we see two young girls, a symbol of our future. They’re worry free and having a great time. One of them is carrying a Nestle product. Does the image help us feel what Nestle is saying in the text? Yes. This image is persuasive.

The second large photo talks about innovation for a changing world. The text reads,

At Nestle, continuous innovation is part of our DNA. Our success is founded on over 150 years of anticipating trends and understanding consumers’ needs.
Here again, the future is represented by two young people enjoying a healthy lifestyle of sports and sampling a Nestle product. They’re looking at a cell phone, a symbol of modern innovation. Does this image help us feel what Nestle is saying in the text? Yes.

Nestle does an excellent job of incorporating images into their reports.

Target: Charts, Graphs and Tables

"Expect more. Pay less." That’s Target’s brand promise to its customers. Target is one of the most identifiable brands in the world, and you don’t need to look past the cover of Target's 2016 annual report to know exactly what it is and who made it.

Let’s take a look page 2 of their report to see how their clean, crisp style is translated into their report’s charts and graphs.

The first set of charts shows their financial highlights in a set of four bar graphs that compare five years of sales, EBIT (that’s ‘earnings before interest and taxes’), net earnings, and diluted EPS (that’s ‘earnings per share’). The chart is simply labeled, captioned appropriately with earnings and CAGR (that’s ‘compound annual growth rate’). You can see at a glance that Target’s 2016 wasn’t quite as profitable as the prior four years. And according to the footnote at the bottom, that’s because of the pharmacy sale to CVS.

The second set of charts shows their total segment sales. They’ve chosen a composition chart to display this information, because they’re showing what portion of total sales each department has contributed. Notice that this is actually one pie chart shown five times, each with a different department highlighted.

  • Are these charts clean, clear, and simple? Very much so. They feature only the information we need to see. The font they chose is easy to read, and the colors stand out.
  • Are they uniform? Definitely. The styles of the bar charts and the pie charts are the same size, they use the same colors.
  • Are they on brand and relevant? Most certainly. Target has used their brand colors, they’ve maintained their clean, crisp style, and their pie charts are the outside ring of the bulls eye. The information is relevant in that, here on page two of the report, they’ve shown you all the financial data that 90% of readers open the report to find.
  • Are they persuasive? Yes. This is a display of information, and because it’s captioned and footnoted, there’s no reason to question it. But where did these numbers come from, and how did they determine which ones to show in the graph? As it turns out, a more in-depth look at their financials is featured on a table on page 4.

All of the information in the financial highlights bar charts on page 2 is featured here in this table, too. This table, which is on brand with its easy to read font and its Target red headers, allows the audience to dig in and really understand the numbers they saw on page 2 of the report. Again, this table follows our visual media standards in that it’s clear, consistent, relevant and persuasive.

Target does an excellent job incorporating charts, graphs and tables into its reports.

Microsoft: Video

Technology giant Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every business on the planet to achieve more. Microsoft's 2017 annual report is online, and because that communication method is so flexible, it allows them to include video right in their letter to shareholders.

The letter opens with a reminder of their mission and proceeds to highlight a variety of businesses, from Boeing to Land o’ Lakes to Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. Please try to watch at least three of these videos—they’re less than a minute each.

Did you see a few of them? Okay, let’s determine if these videos fit in with our visual media standards.

  • Were they uniform? Each of the videos starts with a picture of the planet and then zooms in on an area. From there, you get a series of visuals that show people interacting with Microsoft products to achieve innovative results. The uniformity of these videos is actually the foundation of their communication effectiveness. Every other element falls in place because of it.
  • Were they clear and simple? Yes. Videos add a level of complexity by their very nature--there’s so much to see! The uniformity of these videos adds an element of predictability, so by the second one, you know right away what to expect and what to look for. That makes the video simple. Add to that the simple audio; no verbal communication is added to these videos, it’s just a series of visuals.
  • Were they on brand? The first image of the planet, followed by the zoom in to the people and businesses using their product, is a visual translation of their mission statement: to empower every person and every business on the planet to achieve more. Their technology is featured throughout, and each video ends with a logo. This is very much on brand and relevant.
  • Were they persuasive? Absolutely. They visited companies all over the world and showed us amazing things without using one spoken word. Planes were built. Human lives were saved. They have delivered a lot of emotional punch with this series of videos.

Microsoft made terrific use of video in their report and incorporated it very skillfully with the text.

Increasing Impact with Media

Speakers don’t need visual media to make a point. Just watch any stand-up comedian, and you’ll see that an engaging message can be delivered with nothing but a good story and a funny punchline.

Still, Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote offer speakers the opportunity to reinforce their messages visually, and, done right, this can have a powerful impact. Still, often, PowerPoint presentations are not done as well as they could be. We'll learn more about making effective slide decks in Module 8: Developing and Delivering Business Presentations.

The PowerPoint Myth

If you Google "PowerPoint bad," you get over ninety million results. It's been fashionable for a while to bash presentation software—especially PowerPoint—as stultifying or boring. But as anyone who's seen the classroom scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off knows, bad presentations didn't start with PowerPoint.

If you try to pound a nail in with the claw side of a hammer—or worse yet, with the handle of a screwdriver—do you blame the tool? No, of course not. Blaming PowerPoint for dull presentations and even duller presenters doesn't get at the core issue. Even when the software could practically construct the presentation for you, you still need to focus on the best ways to present your message to your audience in the most effective way possible, including relevant visuals as needed.

There are a few key things to remember when creating visuals that you're going to use to present to an audience. If you work on formulating satisfying answers and goals, your presentation should be effective and persuasive.

Everything we've discussed up to now about audience analysis and honing your message applies to the process of creating visuals for your spoken presentations. In addition, you will want to keep two other key points in mind:

  1. Unlike the exchange between audience and recipient that happens with an email or report, presentations happen in real time, so you want to be respectful of your audience's time and not waste it.
  2. The best thing that can be said about a business presentation is that it was effective and helped everyone in the room do their work. If after the presentation, people are talking about how gorgeous your slides are or how funny you were, rather than about the topic of your presentation, you might not have been focused on the important aspects of your task.

One more critical question to ask yourself is this: are you delivering a speech or giving a business presentation?

If you are giving a speech—where you expect no back-and-forth conversation with your audience—then you probably don't need visuals at all. Obviously, if you're giving a speech about the details of an ancient Roman sculpture, it helps to show a picture, but speeches are scripted and rehearsed, so you don't absolutely need words or images on your screen for you or for your audience. We’ll talk more about speeches in Module 7: Public Speaking.

If you are giving a business presentation, you might need visuals to help both you and your audience stay on track. There are a few rules for this that we can sketch out here, so you'll be prepared for Module 8.

  • A brief agenda slide lets the audience know you have a plan in mind. Give them a sense of the big chunks of information you're going to cover so they trust you with their time and believe you know what you're talking about. Deliver the agenda quickly and resist the temptation to elaborate on it. That's what the rest of your presentation is for. Delivering a slide like the one below should take no more than thirty seconds.A Sample Outline Slide from a Presentation. The slide has a heading and a numbered list. The heading reads Agenda: Strategic Planning Committee. The numbered list has three items. The first item reads Review Committee process. The second item reads Detail three key areas of focus. The second item then has three sub points: the first sub-point reads Revenue. The second sub-point reads product improvement. The third sub-point reads staffing after new product launch. The third item of the top-level list reads discuss timeline for implementation.
  • Using images to convey your message can be really effective, especially if the images apply to your content, such as charts, graphs, and pictures of products or displays. Keep in mind that . . .

    • Simple is good. If you need to present only a few data points from a graph that has several, delete or gray out the ones you don't need in order to help your audience focus on what's important.
    • Pictures should be well-edited and as sharp as possible. If you need to show a detail from a larger picture, edit down to the detail you need and show that. Your audience will mentally check-out if they can't see or follow what you're talking about.
    • A descriptive slide title helps remind your audience of what they're looking at. If an audience member zones out while you introduce the slide, without a slide title, they'll be lost when they come back into focus.
    • Pictures are great for eliciting emotion if that's what you want to do. A discussion of how good customer service changed the life of one of your customers is expected to get an emotional response, so use pictures of the customer, of their letter to management, or other images that will get at the emotion you want to generate. However, when you're simply presenting a quarterly earnings report, emotion-generating pictures will be perceived as confusing or manipulative. This doesn't mean you can't have strong feelings about a strong quarter. It just means that the feeling will come through in how you deliver your message rather than through pictures.

  • Your slides are for you as well as for your audience. This means that they should help you stay on track and remind you of what you want to say. Therefore,

    • Ignore those who say you shouldn't read your slides. The words you put on a slide should be so brief that your audience doesn't even notice you're reading them. Rather, what's on the slide will remind you of what you want to talk about in detail. As soon as you turn away from the slide and re-engage with your audience to elaborate on your point, they will be there with you—focused and learning. Watch the video following this list for a good explanation of how to read what's on your slides without losing your audience.
    • Putting on your slides the few words you need to stay on track eliminates the need for notes. More than anything, notes get in the way of engaging with your audience and staying on track. Presenters who use notes tend to either get mesmerized by them (especially if they're on a small screen like a laptop or tablet) or they try to toggle between their notes and their audience, which is at best an awkward kind of yo-yoing act that steals focus from the point you're trying to make.
    • Remember, there is no award given for the longest presentation given with the fewest slides. It is loads better to make more slides with less on each of them. It helps you stay on track, and it gives your audience something new to focus on more frequently.

Remember the visual media standards when choosing your supporting images, charts, and video. Images should be very simple and clear, they should still be uniform, and they should support your company’s brand and be relevant to the points the speaker is trying to make. Most importantly, they should be effective and persuasive. There’s no better way to educate and persuade your audience than to be right in front of them.

If you are going to include images in a file to be sent electronically—a Word doc, a PowerPoint, or even an email—there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, image files can be so large that they slow down the speed at which your document downloads and/or opens. This can be really annoying for your recipient, especially if they're working on a phone or tablet and using up their data allowance. Sometimes, these files won't even arrive because the system can't handle them. There is a lot of information online about how to reduce image file sizes. Also keep in mind that if your recipient is reading your report or message on a small screen like a tablet or phone, the actual photo dimensions matter. In Module 8: Developing and Delivering Business Presentations, you can find information on how to resize images. Finally, since images can cause some technical trouble, include them in your documents only if they are necessary to support the points you are making. If they're merely decorative, delete.

Practice Question

Revising and Enhancing Visual Media for Impact

Photograph of a person holding a tablet. On the tablet screen are the words Inbound Marketing Strategy, followed by five labelled icons. The first is a purple target labelled strategy. The second is a red mouse icon with the word visitors under it. The third is an orange icon of an envelope with the word leads under it. The fourth is a green icon of three people with the word customers under it. The fifth, and final, icon is a blue icon of a megaphone with the word promoters under it. Figure 1. Simple and clear visuals can help you communicate complex ideas

During the development of a visual aid, the author will review, change, or amend the visual as a part of the revision process. The end product can benefit from the author's taking the time to pause to analyze whether the visual aid is aligned with the purpose of the message she is trying to convey. This includes the visual aid accommodating the audience’s needs and characteristics and providing a persuasive conclusion. The revision process allows for the fine tuning of a draft (or completed project) that will enhance your visual media and ensure the message reaches the intended audience. When revisiting a visual aid, remember the four visual media standards we have explored in this module: Is it clear and simple? Is it consistent and uniform? Is it relevant and on brand? Is it persuasive?

The revision stage is a prime time to receive feedback from someone less familiar with what you have been working on tor receive an outside viewpoint.

Practice Question

Feedback is an important and inevitable part of work, and it comes from the people around you: supervisors, peers, and customers. At some point in your communication career, someone is going to point out some image or graph you chose (or made) say: “I don’t like this,” "I don't understand this," or "This doesn't match our message."

Whether you are in the development phase or a visual aid has already been published, hearing feedback like this can be frustrating and feel dismissive after spending time and effort on creating a visual aid. If a colleague doesn’t like your choice of image or graph, this doesn’t mean your choice was wrong. Do not despair because this is an opportunity to make a better visual aid. Asking the right questions to clarify what is missing from your visual aid allows you to use this feedback to revise your visual and potentially communicate your message more successfully to your audience.

When feedback points to how a visual aid isn’t working with the text, be curious, not defensive. It is tempting to become defensive or “explain away” the criticism, but resist this natural reflex. Do not debate or try to explain your behavior. Instead, let the other person finish completely and try to listen deeply. Then ask questions with the intent of inquiry:

  • If you had to make two suggestions for improving my work, what would they be?
  • Do the colors, alignment, or content of the image add or distract from the message or text?
  • Is there something confusing or that could be done differently in this visual aid?
  • How eye catching or engaging is the visual aid?
  • Is it interactive, original, funny, or interesting?
  • What is something that works well in this visual aid?
  • Which parts of the visual aid are successful unsuccessful and why?

Request examples of what they think a good visual is. Stay curious until you can see how they reached their opinions—even if you don’t completely agree. Later, you can decide what you agree or disagree with, but for now, your goal is simply to learn. Reflect thoughtfully on what you’ve heard.

Just as getting someone to read your writing can make your writing better, getting someone to look at your visual aids will help you create a better product. Asking someone to look over your slides, listen to your presentation, or watch a video you created can seem scary, but mistakes and feedback as opportunities to grow, rather than personal failures. Seeing feedback as an opportunity is referred to as a growth mindset. Criticism is not an attack on you as a person. It is about something you did. You can’t change who you are, but you can change what you do.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of your Message

If only this were easy! A communicator can produce messages all day long, but they are not effective unless the audience receives them, consumes them, understands them, and (if applicable) provides the requested response.

Trying to pin down evaluative data like that is similar to your cat trying to catch the spot of light generated by a laser pointer. But you can actually gain some understanding through data collection with the right tools.

  • Did the audience receive the message sent? Companies like ContactMonkey or Politemail provide email tracking services to help a communicator determine how many of your readers opened your message. If you use a collaborative intranet platform to share your messages, a web tracking program like Google Analytics can give you myriad insights as to who is “landing” on your message.
  • Did the audience consume any of the message? If your message is encouraging a reader to click through to a video or webpage, this can help you understand better if the reader engaged with the content. How many readers clicked through to watch the video?
  • Did the audience understand the message? This is where it gets dicey. Certainly if you’ve requested a behavior of your audience and they’ve responded accordingly, then you know your message was understood. For instance, if you requested that customers update their passwords, you can tell how many audience members understood the message by measuring how many customers changed their passwords. However, if your message was about company strategy, about strengthening employee engagement, or about increasing customer confidence in the company, it’s not as easy to gauge the effectiveness of these more nebulous messages. Long-term, you're likely to see the results of these messages (whether positive or negative), but you likely want to know relatively quickly if your message was successful. You can use tools like surveys to determine if you're on the right track.

Practice Question

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