Speak the lingo: Changing the perception of IT with visual stories

Communication by Paul Shanks
Communication by Paul Shanks

Is perception reality?

When IT is perceived as a cost-centre staffed by introverts speaking a different language, persuasion and influence is, well, tricky.

In my experience, communication skills aren’t always a problem, language barriers are: A lack of domain knowledge, poor understanding of the wider business motivations and speaking the language we’re comfortable in but is incomprehensible outside our bubble. Changing the first two takes time but is a critical undertaking. You wouldn’t hire customer service, sales or accounting staff without ensuring they get trained on how your business works. Why have IT staff who only have a vague understanding?

That hurdle cleared, the barrier of communication remains. How can IT departments ensure everyone understands proposals, pitches, updates, requirements and other communications? How can they change the perception of IT from a department outside the business to one integrated into the heart of the business strategy and operations? How can they ensure that stakeholders understand what needs doing, when, why and by whom, how it will get done, where issues lie and what’s in it for them without retreating into our favoured language, jargon and buzzwords?

One tool is visual stories. With their emphasis on depicting a series of events in simple, clear visual form, visual stories help reduce information overload. By restricting the visuals to a single sheet, the focus is on de-cluttering to ensure your audience is guided to a specific conclusion.

Storytelling in the Age of Big Data – Strata Europe 2013 by Ann Wuyts (@vintfalken) for www.jini.co – CC By 2.0

This is a one-page visual story of telling stories with data science. The pay off of data science is front and centre: “Tell a story, make a difference”. Other compelling and supporting elements surround the central message. They are clear, uncluttered and written in jargon-free English.

Visual story of program today at #crowdsourcedcities @foundationrock by Jennifer Pahlka

Sticking to the one-page format, the visual story of crowd-sourced cities has similar elements but adds two things: size and colour.  Not only does this make the visual story eye-catching, it allows an increase in detail without clutter. One minor criticism is the catch-phrases and acronyms; using acronyms your audience doesn’t understand is alienating.

West Norwood Feast Story by Emily of mindfulmaps.com via olizilla on flickr

This story is beautifully presented and deals with detail by adding separators and arrows. The audience are directed by the arrows and the timeline which ties the entire story together. Impacts are clearly highlighted and explained, while key takeaways are positioned next to relevant parts of the narrative.

These examples underline the importance of clarity in telling a compelling visual story. They follow the CAST criteria:

  • Content – Keep it relevant
  • Audience – Understand who the story is for
  • Story – Make it compelling, interesting and relevant to the audience
  • Tell – the words and images and how they are arranged

Will a visual story alone persuade your audience? No, but a story that’s relevant, addresses their needs and does so clearly is an ideal starting point to engagement and a deeper conversation. In a nutshell, communication.

What to do next:
Practice, practice, practice;
Read: Stories That Move Mountains: Storytelling and Visual Design for Persuasive Presentations