For centuries, the written word has had top billing in business communications. But times have changed – visual and auditory methods are waiting in the wings, ready to play bigger roles. The question for marketers is how to cast each technique to please the audience.
So here’s the first in a series of posts (here’s Part 2) looking at some long-established and new alternatives to text. We’ll start with an example of a simple, missed opportunity.
Managing a merger with words alone
Two giant corporations were merging their operations, and I was part of a nationwide team handling internal and external communications. Mostly we focused on what would change for employees and customers of the company being taken over. The team included hundreds of communications professionals spread across the country: writers, project managers, IT specialists, print production supervisors, product experts, and layers of supervisors. There were a couple of graphic designers, but their function was just to lay out copy and provide an occasional screen capture.
Every change was described solely with written text, which sometimes meant inefficient and potentially confusing communications. Take, for example, an assignment I had of explaining to customers how they were to participate in a rollover from one scanning system to another.
The switch would take place in two phases, and the thousands of affected customers were supposed to march in lock step with the process. That was expecting a lot from customers who were neither employees of the new company nor technically savvy. The project’s details remained a little fuzzy even to those closely connected to it.
Just so I could understand for myself how it worked, I sketched out a flowchart and ran it by the people running the operation. I couldn’t share the flowchart with the people actually affected by the operate – I could only write about it, which took several paragraphs. If I could have released the flowchart, it would have looked something like this:
(Sorry — had to delete a reference to the company in the lower right. And yes, the shapes don’t comply with flowchart protocol.)
Intuitively, you can sense how much better that would have been than a page of text, right? But why is it better?
- Users can quickly determine what is relevant to their situation. On Feb. 25, they know to look at the left side of the chart, for example, and ignore the right side.
- The project seems simpler and less daunting. Showing each step as an isolated event helps users move from one to the other – getting back to that “simple win” idea we discussed in an earlier post.
- The company providing the information is forced to think through procedures more fully. When you isolate each step, you force yourself as the flowchart creator, “What happens next?”
When should you use a flowchart?
Flowcharts are ideal for explaining processes. Technical manuals employ them, often as the trouble-shooting portion of a user guides. They’re also good for quality-control management.
But they are, of course, an abbreviation of the information. While that is often helpful, by themselves flowcharts can leave out important chunks of information. When that’s the case, it’s good to combine a flowchart with text that expands upon the process. If you’re a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, you likely recall reading his book and then using a flowchart to remind you how to put it in play on a moment-by-moment basis.
If you don’t understand how to create a flowchart, learn. It’s not a matter of turning subheadings into boxes!
Why aren’t flowcharts more widely used?
I never found out why the people who set up the communications structure for the merger didn’t use flowcharts or graphical alternatives to text. And I don’t know why organizations such as the Internal Revenue Service don’t make it part of tax instructions – they’d be so helpful.
But here’s a guess. IRS documents, just like the merger documents, need approvals from attorneys. Last time I looked, law schools weren’t teaching students the way to interpret graphics – only the written word. That’s due in part because the cases and statutes they study are pure text – with not a flowchart or photo or infographic in sight.
Eventually, as visual information becomes more and more the norm, that will change. But if you’re in marketing and you’re not using visuals as you could, don’t let your legal department keep you from serving your audience better.
P.S. If you ARE a lawyer, working for a law firm, here’s a handy flow chart for YOU!