32 pictures tell 6,489 words.

May 19, 2016

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When I was a teenager, I had a french exchange student – Margot Bonnet (such a beautifully french name!). We were incredibly well matched and became instant pals. One of our favourite pastimes was to type sentences into the online translator, which I imagine would have been on the primitive side in 1999, and watch the other roar with laughter at the (usually completely nonsensical) result.

The best bit was you could then translate it back again, so we’d both be able to revel in the joke at the expense of an internet, like us, in its adolescence.

I often describe Graphic Recording as being similar to translating. It’s translating words into pictures. Concepts into metaphors. Ideas into maps and illustrations. I had never really considered though… What happens when you try to translate it back?

I recently had the privilege of working with the NDIA (National Disability Insurance Agency) at a three day conference for senior staff in Geelong.

Due to the nature of their work, and because they’re an awesome organisation, NDIA work hard to be an employer of choice for people with a disability. This meant having an Auslan Interpreter and a Visual Interpreter (Graphic Recorder – that’s me), and it also meant that all my illustrations would need to be translated back into words in order to be put through reading software for the vision impaired.

So for the first time, this service was included in part of my engagement with the organisation… and it was fascinating.

From the three day event, I ended up with 32 illustrations. These translated into 25 pages of text – that’s 6,489 words. Here are some of my observations and reflections:

1) A picture really does tell a thousand words.

I was struck by the amount of extra words and context setting that had to be added in order to communicate the same thing that could be done with boxes, lines, arrows and drawings. These shapes and symbols aren’t just useful for capturing information with ease, but they allow for us to download it much more directly, too.

I like to think of good communication like a smart budgeter (which I’m not, by the way… sorry Dad) – you should aim for limited words / effort for maximum return. It’s quite amazing how much we can save by implementing even the most simple visuals in our communications.

2) Repetition and relationships.

Part of why Graphic Recording is so useful is that it provides a snapshot of your content, and allows you to easily identify patterns and themes. As we humans are basically pattern recognition machines, we eat this right up. Economical communication at it’s best.

(Check out this great vid from Dan Roam on Pattern Recognition).

One way we do this is by the repetition of symbols and / or illustrations, so we can easily see where the same subject or issue is being repeated. The other is by using “connectors” (arrows, lines, etc) to show how one bit of content relates to another.

In translating from the picture back to words, a lot of this richness was lost. There are some things you can still do, sure – like using headings, sub headings and dot points… but you completely lose that ‘single view’ and the power of those repeated symbols both in a single illustration, and throughout all 32 illustrations as a batch.

3) That memory retention stuff is no joke…

I know all the stats in relation to how powerful visuals are for memory retention, particularly when they’re paired with words like we do in Graphic Recording (6 x better memory retention than words alone – check out John Medina’s research). I’ve received great feedback from my clients in relation to how well it’s worked for them. I haven’t ever really had the opportunity to test it for myself though, and this was a real doosie – a client I’d never worked with before, in an unfamiliar industry, with a variety of brand new content.

As I made my way through each illustration – even weeks later – I had to marvel at how much I could remember about each presentation. I remembered how everything was related to each other. I remembered each speaker and subject clearly. I remembered the feeling in the room. I remembered what was between the lines. I, even as an outsider, would feel fairly confident in explaining the content to someone else if I could use the illustration as a prop. That’s pretty magic I reckon.

4) Content attack!

Even I was surprised by the serious amount and depth of content that was captured. 6,489 words worth, that can be viewed and absorbed in a series of purdy pictures. Upon seeing the content all typed out like the proper grown ups do, the wonderful sneakiness of the whole thing really sunk in.

Can you imagine finishing a conference and sending a wrap-up of 6,489 words to all your participants? And expecting them to not only READ it, but to then USE it to explain to their team what they’d learned? Nah-uh. Nope. Never.

SURPRISE! Content attack. That’s what we’re slipping into your unsuspecting delegates’ inboxes when they receive these illustrative summaries post-event. Mwwahhhahahahahahah.

5) Making it human, helps.

Looking at a picture of a person displaying emotion – looking happy / sad / proud / afraid / etc… Is a very different experience to writing the words: “we are happy” or “there is a picture of someone looking proud”. I really felt sad

<picture of me looking sad> …see what I mean?

when I had to omit these from the written versions. There just wasn’t any way to translate these emotional cues into words – at least not without setting up a whole narrative around a person, why they were there, how they’d been let down before… Which is super for a novel, but not so suited to a conference summary.

Paul Ekman (a psychologist and pioneer in the study of emotions and their relationship to facial expressions) found there to be seven universally recognised facial expressions. These are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, contempt, and disgust. Of course there are many more types of expressions, but these seven Ekman found to be recognised the same way globally – regardless of age, culture, literacy, or geography.

When we get to use expressions in our pictures, we not only instantly communicate the feeling and emotion around a particular subject, but we can communicate it despite any cultural or linguistic barriers.

We also know from the advertising world that people use emotions – and not logic – when making decisions. The ability to inject emotion into your content through illustration is powerful, and should not be taken for granted.

3 Comments to "32 pictures tell 6,489 words." >

  1. Rachel Gee said: (on May 19, 2016 at 6:48 pm)

    Well done Jessamy. Very interesting read

  2. Alyssa said: (on May 22, 2016 at 11:27 am)

    Hey girl,
    I enjoyed this piece – very interesting. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Caz said: (on May 23, 2016 at 5:37 pm)

    Great read Jessa! Would love to talk to you about this sometime. Love the psychological stuff xx

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