How To Use Visual Communication and Why It Matters

exclamation mark against yellow background

According to the Rolling Stones, time is on my side. Well, as much as I love the Stones, I can say without fear of contradiction that time is, in fact, NOT on my side. Not even a little bit.

Like you, I’m busy. Really busy. We’re talking 100-emails-a-day-between-five-meetings-and-lunch-at-my-desk-with-a-sandwich-in-one-hand-typing-with-the-other kind of busy.

See the image below for a dramatic reenactment of me working last Thursday.

And yet, even with all that going on, nothing halts my productivity like finding myself stuck in the dreaded never-ending feedback loop.

You know what I’m talking about: That seemingly eternal stream of emails, meetings, phone calls and desk drop-bys we go through trying to get a particular project or document approved. Guess what all those methods typically have in common? Words.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Words alone aren’t the best way to communicate. In fact, there’s all kinds of research that shows us that in many cases, it’s downright inefficient.

There’s no way around it: Sometimes words get in the way of what we’re actually trying to say.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are some hard numbers:

  • Time spent per day watching video by adults in the U.S. grew by more than 5 times, from an average of 39 seconds per day in 2011, to an average of 1 minute, 55 seconds in 2015, and usage is still trending upwards.
  • Almost 50 percent of our brains are involved in visual processing.
  • People following directions with illustrations do 323 percent better than those following text directions alone.
  • People only remember 10 percent of what they hear after three days, but if a relevant image is paired with that same information, retention goes up to 65 PERCENT!

Ok, numbers are cool, but what does all that really mean?

It means our brains are hardwired to process images quickly. And THAT means that in many cases, images will work better than words when trying to get your message across.

Imagine this: You’re managing the team for a major website redesign. Your project lead emails you with the new homepage design asking for your feedback.

Overall, you love the look, but you have just a few tweaks you’d like to see. You COULD write your thoughts in an email and send it along to the team, which might look something like this:

Hey everyone!

The new homepage looks AMAZING! I love the new elements and the new graphics look great as well. I have just a few changes I’d like to see.*

  • Under the header image, let’s move the Camtasia logo, description and buttons to the left and move the Snagit assets to Camtasia’s current spot.
  • In the header image, the “Learn More” button looks a little small. Let’s make it about 30% bigger.
  • For the Snagit and Camtasia “Learn More” buttons, let’s make them orange like the Camtasia one in the header image.
  • Bold the sentence “Find out which product is right for you in under a minute. Try the Product Selector”!
  • In the grey field below the products, let’s take the grey all the way to black and do the text in white. Buttons should also be orange like above.

Or, you could grab a screenshot and send them something like this:

Hey everyone!

The new homepage looks AMAZING! I love the new elements and the new graphics look great as well. I have just a few changes I’d like to see.

The advantage is two-fold. First, it took me less time to grab a quick screenshot and mark it up than it did to write out the numbered list of changes. Plus, I didn’t have to figure out how to say what I meant (or worry about my spelling as much).

But more importantly, because my team can see exactly what I’m asking for, they’re less likely to miss something or change the wrong thing, so we’re way less likely to get caught up in a feedback loop of misunderstandings.

And don’t get me started on how much faster this was than trying to have a meeting. Just the thought of trying to coordinate everyone’s schedules and sit in a room for 20 minutes just to get these quick points across makes me feel like this:

“Ok, smart guy,” you might say, “But what about printing it and doing the markup that way?”

To which I say: You’re proving my point for me.

Either way, you’re still using visuals and markups to make things clearer. By doing it with a screen capture, you avoid the steps of printing, making your markups by hand (and scratching out any mistakes you might make while doing it), and then making copies if more than one person needs to see the changes.

Plus, we’re saving trees. And, what if color is important? I don’t know about where you work, but most organizations like to avoid color copies or prints if they can because they cost way more than black and white.

Oh, and if someone loses your on-paper changes (or spills soup all over them), you have do them all over again.

So where else might markups work better than words alone?

How about:

  • Making notes on a digital image, such as where to crop
  • Illustrating the steps one needs to take to complete a task
  • Highlighting information you want people to notice on charts and graphs
  • Making comments on video stills for your video editor, such as where to blur out confidential information
  • Offering comments on the UI for a new piece of software

The list is virtually endless …

Time is not on our sides, but by working smarter and using visuals and markups, you can get a little more of it back. AND, you get the added bonus of being more clear in your communications, which helps you avoid the never-ending feedback loop and get to “Yes.” more quickly!

Work Smarter, Not Harder

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to work smarter, not harder and they seem to be great ideas. But until workplace nap time becomes mandatory (apparently siestas help you work smarter, not harder), using visual communication can save you and your viewers time.

Getting your message across in a clear, concise way can be difficult with words alone. By incorporating visuals, you can save a lot of back and forth due to confusion. Here are a few ways you can use images and screencasts in your communications to make life easier for you and your audience.

1. Onboard new employees

It’s very time consuming to schedule face to face training sessions every time a new employee joins your organization. It’s also overwhelming to be a new employee with so much to learn right from the start. Make it easier by creating narrated screencasts that show how to use your organization’s standard programs. They will be able to re-watch it when they need a refresher, and you’ll save time by avoiding in-person training sessions. You can even use animated GIFs to help with training!

2. Capture inspiration

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So when you see an idea you like, take a screenshot of it! Saving good ideas with screenshots lets you build up a library of inspiration to use the next time you’re stuck for ideas. Similar to mood boards, you’ll have images of examples or ideas you liked, or didn’t like.

3. Skip writing pages of notes

Have you ever had the problem of trying to scribble down pages of notes, only to go back and realize your handwriting has gotten out of control and you can’t read what you wrote? One way to help alleviate this problem is to record the conversation (with permission, of course). At TechSmith, we often interview customers to learn how they use visuals in their jobs, and will record the calls rather than just relying on handwritten notes. Then, we just share a link to the recording with others to listen to when they have time, rather than blocking out calendar time for them to attend the original interview.

4. Give Clear Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback on content or projects can be challenging. You often have to wait (or chase) stakeholders for feedback on projects. And sometimes when they provide their suggestions, it’s paragraphs of text which you’re left to interpret yourself. Using visuals to show your exact feedback can reduce the time spent sending emails back and forth and helps everyone get on the same page. This can make the approval process go much faster.

In the below example, my coworker was able to take a screenshot and point out exactly how to improve this project, without having to write a long email. Her screenshot and comments helped me immediately understand what she wanted me to change. If we would have tried to communicate these changes through text alone, it probably would have taken a few hours of back and forth emails to get to this outcome.

5. Reporting progress

I like graphs. But without context, sometimes they don’t make as much sense as they could. By hitting record and narrating your graphs or even slide presentations, you can help your audience better understand results, data, and the impact they may have on your business. This can be particularly helpful when reporting data to coworkers in different departments who may need a little more explanation or context in order to understand what the numbers mean. Adding images to reports can also help achieve clarity and engagement, instead of only using text. We even have a  blog showing results with screencasts to help you get started.

6. Better emails

Emails are a necessary part of many jobs, and pretty crucial communication tools. But what if you could cut down the amount of text, and still convey your point in a way that will grab people’s attention? Adding screenshots to your emails can help you achieve this. They are more engaging to view than blocks of text, and you can draw your reader to your main point with marked up screenshots. Here’s another blog post to help you get started on 3 Ways Screenshots Make Your Microsoft Word Doc, PowerPoint, and Email Better.

Why does visual communication matter?

So, why the increase in visual communication? Content creators  are figuring out that using visual communication is a much more impactful way to get your point across. Read on to learn four important reasons why visual communication is crucial in order to effectively deliver a meaningful message.

1. Visual communication saves time by relaying messages faster.

We can get the sense of a visual scene in less than 1/10 of a second–that’s even faster than you read this sentence!

Giphy CEO and co-founder Alex Chung was quoted as saying “a picture paints a thousand words…by that logic…the average GIF contains sixty frames, then they’re capable of conveying 60,000 words–the same as the average novel.” Giphy even recently announced that they are delivering 1 billion GIFs a day… and that this number is growing!

Stats have shown that visuals are processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text. Getting your point across quickly is a huge benefit for obvious reasons. Because time is money, saving time by utilizing visual communication makes sense (cents)!

visual communication - Dwight Schrute meme - time isn't money - its not an accepted form of currency
Time is money, so the saying goes. Maybe not in a literal sense…

Images and video convey a richer experience than text-heavy content alone. In a media landscape filled with clutter, readers’ attention is hard to acquire, and even harder to retain.

As a result, readers often prefer to scan content rather than read word for word. Keeping your material loaded with visuals is a surefire way to relay your message in less time.

2. Visual communication ensures that a clear, unified message is delivered.

We’ve all had it happen–you fall in love with a book, and then you learn that this story you love is getting made into a movie. You feel apprehensive about watching the movie, fearing that it won’t fall in line with the characters, settings, and overall feel that was imagined in your head.

Visual Communication - Google search bar, worst book to movie adaptation - large number of search results

Often novels don’t contain much visual communication–they are typically very text heavy, which leaves much to your imagination.

When reading for pleasure, letting your creative mind wander and your imagination run wild is often what you’re seeking–it’s a part of the experience.

When reading for business, though, the opposite is true. For business communications, it’s important that all readers are interpreting a similar meaning, or risk a result of wasted time and confusion.

Visual Communication - Martha Stewart - It's a Good Thing meme

Collaborating on projects with remote employees can be challenging. Short, simple videos or animated GIFs are a great way to quickly iterate on suggested edits among your team, and make certain that everyone involved is on the same page.

3. Visual communication helps to provide a shared, consistent experience.

An important part of delivering a consistent experience with visuals is branding. In addition to a logo, many organizations have defined brand colors that should be used in all marketing activity.

visual communication - TechSmith brand guidelines - logos plus colors

Logos, colors, font, graphics, icons, and imagery, paired with your company’s voice and tone, make your brand recognizable. You can witness this in action by taking a Guess the Logo quiz.

Effective branding activity of using consistent visual communication is a great way to take advantage of your brand’s equity when launching to a new market.

Regardless if your organization has 5 people, or 500 people, if it’s a start-up, or if it has a long history, making sure that everyone is using the same defined brand elements is a great way to start driving recognition of your organization and to build brand awareness.

Visual communication - a series of Starbucks logos illustrating a similar tone and feel

4. Visual communication results in better retention of the information.

From a scientific perspective, it’s been found that using relevant visuals help the audience remember the information more effectively.

This infographic outlines some interesting statistics—only 10-20% of text (or spoken word) is recalled. But, people recall 80% of what they both see and do.

Whether your planned communication is internal or external, regardless of the topic or strategy, retention is always something to aim for.

Bringing it all together

The evidence overwhelmingly points to the same conclusion–using visual communication is crucial to an overall strategic communication plan. Incorporating images and video throughout messaging has benefits for both the sender and the receiver.

Creating images isn’t exclusive to those with formal graphic design training or with access to expensive, high-end tools. Simple screenshots are a great example of an easy way to create your own image while conveying a message in a meaningful way.

If you are not sure how to get started using visuals to help you communicate better, Snagit is a great tool to use to create screenshots, short and simple videos and screencasts, or animated GIFs.

Are images and/or video currently a part of your communication strategy? We’d love to hear how you are using visual communication–let us know in the comments below!

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2017 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Allison Boatman

Allison Boatman is a member of the Marketing Team at TechSmith.
Follow her on Twitter @allisonboats

  • She can often be found aimlessly wandering around local craft stores.
  • Personal motto: "Work hard, stay humble."
  • Favorites: Alaskan Malamutes, Iceland, and 90's pop culture.

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