Communicating your new, breakthrough strategy can be a more delicate process than drafting it in the first place. One of the best tools to employ at this stage is using visuals in presentations to secure buy-in and understanding.
At ThoughtForm, we spend a lot of time helping clients develop and explain various kinds of strategies. Some of these strategies are complex, multi-year behemoths involving thousands of people and hundreds of projects. Others are smaller, more discrete efforts.
But no matter the size, the problem with strategies is always the same: they can be hard to understand and even harder to remember. Using a presentation to communicate about tactical things—for example, changing a customer service process—is relatively straightforward. That’s because these types of changes are prescriptive and detailed. There are barriers to overcome, but getting an employee to understand a specific behavioral change is generally manageable.
But strategies are fuzzier—less concrete and directive. They precede that new process or system overhaul, focusing on the overall direction and key concepts. And the challenging part about presenting strategies is doing it at the right level of detail. If you keep the discussion at 30,000 feet, strategies can become so generic or theoretical that taking action on them is impossible. But zooming in to portray too much detail can overwhelm audiences.
Using visuals in presentations can be the key to unlocking clarity, however, it can also add layers of confusion. Here are a few Dos and Don’ts to get you started in the right direction.
… rely on icons. Icons are great for communicating common and straightforward concepts like cost, where one dollar sign means low cost and four means high. But they aren’t great for representing complex concepts, like maximizing a partner channel sales approach. If the audience is already familiar with the complex concept, you might be able to get away with using an icon to represent it as shorthand. But a picture of a star or a magnifying glass is not going to enhance the audience’s understanding of a topic they’ve never encountered before.
… rely on stock photos. Stock photography has its place, and adding visual interest is never a bad thing. But telling an audience that we’re focusing on diversifying our staff and showing a picture of a range of races, ages, and abilities sitting in a generic corporate boardroom doesn’t add much to their comprehension.
… decorate. Outlined boxes, sweeping brush strokes, and colored bands do not add to your strategy’s meaning. In fact, they can distract from your real message and clutter your communication. This is also true for tiered visual elements like pillars and pyramids.
… design an illustrated framework. Say your strategy has four components, which each have sub-components. Help your audience keep track of them by creating a simple graphic navigational element (avoiding visual metaphors). Label each piece, and use color and icons sparingly to help readers remember key differences between them.
… use a clear information hierarchy. Great communication is all about creating unambiguous understanding. Focus on rigorous consistency and parallelism, making it easy for readers to follow ideas from start to finish
… establish a written and visual nomenclature. If you call one thing a strategy and one thing an initiative, keep those terms clear and consistent across communications. This also goes for visual elements. For instance, if an eye icon means oversight in one place, it needs to mean oversight everywhere. Inconsistency creates confusion.
… focus on action. Creating activity-focused illustrations, like using an active voice in writing, enhances understanding. Visually show specific people taking specific actions to demonstrate how your strategy will translate from theory into action.
Communicating strategy is one of the hardest parts of business communications. Audiences are distracted and jaded, and high-level strategic concepts can be hard to get through. But we can’t overemphasize the value of having alignment on your strategy. True understanding and internalization of the company’s vision is an incredible asset. So take the extra time to create an intentional framework and nomenclature, illustrate actions, and always, always, always be consistent.
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