What you’ll learn to do: Find the best media to present your message
I hear and I forget. I see and I understand. I do and I remember.
Confucius had the essence of business communication defined back in 500 BC. Your organization is full of people who hear and forget; however, if they see, they will understand.
Visual media improves a business communicator’s chances of being understood by presenting information with a unique combination of logic and creativity. In this section, we will learn what visual media resources are available to business communicators and how to choose those that will strengthen your messages. We will learn about basic visual design principles and the messages that these principles send to your audience.
- Describe professional standards for using visual media resources for business purposes
- Describe basic visual design principles
Using Visual Media Resources
As we learned in Module 1: Communicating in Business, in all business communications, we should have:
- Understanding of audience knowledge
If you keep these seven communication principles in mind when you’re crafting your message, you improve the chances that your message will be effective. Now we are going to add visual media to our communication toolbox; visual media increases your message’s impact.
How does a visual element give your message more impact? Think about the last time you asked directions to a friend’s house. If you are one of those “direction-impaired” people whose eyes glaze over at the first “go north” or “head east,” then you know how helpful it is when someone draws you a map. It’s a simple visual aid that takes the place of all of those words you’re not quite sure what to do with. That map has made your friend’s communication of directions easier to remember. There are examples of this all around you. The word “STOP” is a fairly easy word, but a red light or octagonal sign removes the need of any words at all. The weather report shows you a rain cloud, and you grab your umbrella without a second thought.
If your message can be more clearly understood by incorporating visual media, then by all means, you should do it. And to incorporate visuals effectively, you should understand that you’re going to heed all seven principles of communication, particularly these:
- Clarity: your visuals should be clear, clean, and simple
- Consistency: your visuals should all maintain a uniform look and feel
- Relevancy: your visuals should make sense as a part of the whole communication and be on-brand
And then we’re going to add a whole new principle to the mix, that your visuals should be persuasive: your visuals should inspire an emotional bond or a new level of understanding.
Let’s look at each one of these principles separately.
When considering the use of visual media, make sure that it’s easy for the reader to glean the information he needs. Some general rules we’ll keep in mind as we go through this module include,
- Use bold, contrasting colors. If you have a pie chart or a graph, it helps to make one piece red, another yellow, and yet another blue. This makes the chart easier to read than if each piece is a different shade of green. Make sure your chart pops with color, and there will be no question which piece is which.
- Use easy-to-read fonts. Loopy letters and heavy calligraphy strokes slow your reader down. Choose a font that’s easy to read, like one of the many discussed by author John Wood in his blog for the American Writers & Artists, Inc. website.
- Use only pertinent information. If the point of your communication is to show that sales have gone up 22 percent over last year, your graph should feature that information—and nothing else. If you throw expenses, employee turnover and gross margin on that same chart, your reader will miss your message. Point out the information you need to highlight, and let everything else fade into the background.
This module on visual media looks a lot like the other modules in this business communication course, doesn’t it? Same kind of headers, same colors. Uniformity helps the reader understand what to expect and better prepares them to take in your message. Here are a few things we’ll try to do in this module as we study different types of visual media:
- Stick to the format of your charts and graphs wherever you’re able. If you start out with that bar chart showing annual sales, don’t make it a line graph in the next section and a stacked bar chart in the section after that. Using different charts to show the same information slows your reader down unnecessarily. Keep in mind that if you found the best visual scheme to explain the data in the first place, there’s no reason to change it to a less-effective one just for the sake of variety.
- Stick to the color scheme and fonts you’ve already established. If you show sales on your graphs in red, always show them in red. If you’ve chosen one easy-to-read font for all your tables, or a similar style of photo for all the sections of your annual report, there’s no need to deviate.
- Use pictures that are visually similar. If you’re using a series of head shots, the heads should all be about the same size. If four of the pictures show a person’s head and shoulders, the fifth one should not be showing a person from the waist up.
If your message is communicating annual sales, your charts and graphs shouldn’t be dealing with employee turnover rates. If your message is about your company’s efforts to reduce waste, that message should not feature a photo of a cute puppy. That’s relevancy at a very basic level.
Keeping communication “on brand” takes relevancy to a whole new level. Companies rely on visual media as much as the written word to deliver their brand message, and as a communicator, you need to keep your choices in visual media relevant to your company’s mission and promise to its customers.
Colors in Branding: Target and Disney
If you ever visit Target’s website, you may notice there’s a whole lot of red. That didn’t happen by accident. Target has a series of colors and images that coincide with the way they identify themselves as a company and the promises they make to their customers. You see a lot of crisp clean backgrounds with vivid pictures showing style and value—and a lot of red fonts and bulls eyes.
Conversely, Disney’s main color is blue, but Sleeping Beauty’s castle and that cartoon mouse are even more closely associated with the company’s mission and promise to customers. Disney photos always depict happy families interacting with characters and enjoying the entertainment.
Large companies usually have a set of brand guidelines or a brand “style guide” that communicators can consult to familiarize themselves with the company’s preferred color palette, fonts and image standards. All of your business communications represent an opportunity to reinforce and reflect your company’s brand, and it’s your duty as a communicator to do so.
Your visual media choice should help you tell your story. Even if your data is perfect, it’s no guarantee your audience is going to jump on board with you. Your use of image, chart, or video should indicate it is from a reliable source, be simple to read, and allow you to show the audience exactly how you drew the conclusion you’ve drawn. If you’re communicating in aid of a cause, it doesn’t hurt to choose an image that invokes a little emotion.
This doesn’t mean that you should sacrifice the principle of objectivity when you employ persuasiveness in your visual media. But your communication strategy on the whole is an engagement tool, and your choice of visuals should strengthen that engagement.
Visual Design Principles
- Describe basic visual design principles
Business communicators don’t always have access to a graphic artist. In the event that you as communicator find yourself needing to create visuals that dazzle without the help of a graphic artist, here are a few basic principles of visual design you can keep in your back pocket.
Contrast is when two aspects of an image are strikingly different from one another, like dark and light. Contrast is an important principle in visual design and helps highlight the important part of the image. It adds “weight” to your design and guides the viewer’s eye to what you want them to see.
Alignment creates a sharp, linear order to the elements of your visual, so they all have a connection to each other. If objects are closer together, the viewer assumes that they’re related. In the first image of trees below, we see six trees that are in two rows even though they’re not precisely linear. In the second image, we perceive two groups of three.
If there are multiple elements in a design, more visual “weight” should be given to the most important part of the graphic. Establish the most essential part of the graphic first, and then fill in the rest with the less important parts.
Repetition and Pattern
Repetition strengthens the overall design and ties together elements to make them more consistent. This technique is often used in branding to make items more recognizable.
Color is an important choice in visual communication because each color has a meaning. If you’re following brand guidelines, your colors will reinforce your brand, but if not, you might want to consider some of the universal associations that go along with each color. Green tends to conjure images of the environment, while red symbolizes anger, and yellow, happiness. Which of these roses looks cold to you?
Xerox dug deep into why color is important in communication. Check out their two-page cheat sheet to learn more about how to leverage color for the best effect in your presentation.
Balance and Space
Keeping the elements of your design balanced gives the design some form and stability. Even spacing makes it look professional and attractive, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be symmetrical. It can be asymmetrical, with larger items in the upper left corner balancing out smaller ones in the lower right, and so on.
Leaving open or “negative” space ensures that your visual isn’t cluttered and can highlight the important parts of a design. As we mentioned in our adopted standards above, simplicity is your friend!
Design doesn’t stop at the picture. Fonts have everything to do with your audience’s engagement with your communication. Take a look at this font and decide if it’s easy to read:
You can tell what it says; however, reading this font for too long could get taxing, especially on a screen. Is this next font easier to read?
Your audience won’t continue to read your communication if you’ve chosen a font that’s difficult to read.
In addition to legibility, there’s a question of style. How do you feel about these lines of text and how they work together?
They’re just words, but they’re very visual; the use of color and different fonts draws your attention to the words “dream it” and “do it.”
Graphic artists use a variety of rules to choose fonts and lay them out in a graphic design. This video shows you—very visually—how graphic artists make fonts work as a component of visual media.
Business communicators aren’t necessarily graphic artists, but a good command of a graphic designer’s visual design techniques will help you evaluate your visual media and decide if it’s going to support your message. These aren’t all the visual design principles a graphic designer employs, of course, but for our purposes, they’re a good place to start.