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Using Visual Language to Improve Your Verbal Communication

My favorite innovation techniques, such as brainwriting, come from some key books in my personal library: Gamestorming, Back of the Napkin, Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work, creatingminds.org, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Visual Explanations. Common to all of these resources is the concept of “visual language” or “visual grammar”. I did not inherit the good artist genes from my dad, but nonetheless, I have pushed myself to learn how to sketch and doodle to a tool to develop my ideas.

Why Visualization is Important

Since the first cave paintings, human beings have shown the ability to draw both tangible objects and intangible ideas. Written language expanded our ability to add clarity and reach to our thoughts. Writing revolutionized our ability to communicate, but the practice of using images to convey ideas lagged. Drawing was art, beautiful to look at, but not given the same weight in scholarly or business communications. Some reasons were technological – early printing presses could not handle complex graphics. Some were educational.

Dan Roam explains that before Doctor Seuss introduced the Cat in the Hat, children’s educational books emphasized word repetition paired with boring, unrelated images. Kids did not want to read the stories because didn’t like the pictures. Dick and Jane made learning, well, boring. Seuss’ work turned the concept around by making entertaining visuals that reinforced the words kids were reading. This changed how educators taught literacy and engaged children with reading on a new level. Words and images are a powerful team.

Roam expands this concept saying we need to feed both parts of our minds: verbal and visual. He calls the verbal mind the “fox” and the visual mind the “hummingbird”. Using this analogy, imagine a fox and a hummingbird in a forest. The fox moves swiftly and purposefully from point to point to do specific things (look for food, find a nice den). The hummingbird will flit from flower to flower (Blue! Yellow! Red!). Given time both will travel through the forest. The fox sees great detail in the places he visits, while the hummingbird gets a wide, but less detailed view of the forest. Put their paths together and you have an image of both great depth and breadth.

It’s About Clarity

Images give your words power and vice versa by clarifying meaning. Some things are easier to say and some are easier to show. For example, physical traits and spatial relationships are easier to show pictorially. If I say “three legged chair” you probably picture this:

But I was thinking about a stool:

However, images alone are not enough. When you add labels and narrative to images, you fill in context that images alone cannot fulfill. For example, it’s hard explain sentimental attachment or historical context using images alone. When used together, the narrative becomes part of the image.

Here’s my previous example again:

The leg broke off of my beloved chair.

So I repurposed it as a stool!

Words and images together tell a more complete story.

Integrating Images in Sentences

Edward Tufte work is a brilliant example of the power of adding images to the written word. His idea of sparklines embeds data trend graphics directly into sentences. This give you historical information and current information in a single view. Using words alone would take paragraphs to explain the data shown in one sparkline. This powerful idea was actually adopted and integrated into Excel. Sparklines have caught on in the financial industry, but not in other industries as of yet.

Provided by: http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0001OR

When I heard Tufte speak in 2002, he lamented the fact most computer displays lacked the resolution to show the proper detail that printed page can. I wonder if the introduction of the retina display will make sparklines more popular.

How to Start Using a Visual Grammar

Written language has rules to make it widely understandable. We learn verbal grammar in school to properly combine nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and conjunctions. This helps us convey written ideas consistently and clearly.

However, humans never really developed an equivalent grammar for visual displays of information. In Blah, Blah, Blah, Roam shares his well considered visual grammar. This give visual language consistent rules akin to verbal language.

Basically, he developed types of images that correspond to the basic parts of speech. For nouns, the subjects and objects of your ideas, use portraits. For adjectives that show quantity (or relationships of amount like “x is three times more than y”), use a chart. By giving you a type of image to draw for any part of speech, Roam gives you a way to sketch almost any concept.

There’s much more detail to this concept and I strongly encourage you to give it a read. Adding visual language skills to your written language will give your ideas more power. This will help crystallize your thinking. It will help you think of new relationships and possibilities previous unimagined. Most importantly, visual language will help you express your ideas to others. It will spur them to share your enthusiasm for your ideas.

How To

Here are some tips from Gamestorming and Blah, Blah, Blah to get you started using more visuals in your thinking, notes and presentations.

1. Learn how to draw and combine primitive shapes: points, lines, angles, arc, spirals, loops, boxes, circles, ovals, triangles, circles, house and clouds are all you need to draw anything.

2. Use the six elements of vivid grammar to equate images to verbal grammar




Nouns + Pronouns


Quantity (adjectives: more than, less than)


Prepositions and Conjunctions (relationships between things)


Tense (past, present, future)


Complex Verbs


Complex Subjects

Multivariable plots

Pick up one of these great books to learn more. Start doodling. You’ll find that your imagination takes off and you will be able to bring other with you!

  • NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public or private sector employer, organization or related entity.

Chaeny Emanavin is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

I find one of the useful ways to think about is to consider that language is sequential, while images are simultaneous. Each has their respective “memory-load” challenges. If it takes a longish time to lay out information verbally, which the receiver then has to stitch together, the challenge is to keep all that information in memory while listening to the next bit of it. An image/graphic can help to tie all that sequential information together and overcome the conceptual challenge created by presenting it in series. Conversely, a graphic can contain too much information, and presenting it verbally, in chunks, can make it more “thinkable” and digestible.

Sometimes a nice compromise is to present verbally, accompanied by a partial graphic summarizing what has been presented so far, such that when the full picture is presented after all the elements have been laid out, it doesn’t seem quite as complex, because the elements have already been appropriately grouped in the receiver’s mind.

Most of the time, when I get a compliment on a graphic/figure, it’s because the image allows the person to think about a lot of stuff all at once, with ease. Some of that is implicit in the graphic itself, but a lot of it is really a byproduct of the manner in which the graphic is used and how it is introduced.