Neil deGrasse Tyson tells a story about an experience in a Brooklyn coffee shop that provides all the evidence you need of the value of visual explanations.
A non-coffee drinker, Tyson ordered a hot chocolate with whipped cream. However, his drink showed up on the counter with no whipped cream on top. When Tyson told the barista he forgot to add the whipped cream, the barista said he did add it, but it must have sunk to the bottom of the cup.
That explanation might have been enough for some customers to shrug off the visual absence of whipped cream, but not an astrophysicist. Tyson told the barista that unless the laws of physics were suspended in the coffee shop, whipped cream doesn’t sink.
That might have been enough for most baristas to grab the whipped cream dispenser and shoot another dab in the cup in the customer’s hot chocolate. Instead, the barista sought to prove the whipped cream sunk, as he said it did. With an I-told-you-so expression, he made another hot chocolate and, in front of Tyson, plopped the whipped cream on top.
The whipped cream didn’t sink.
Tyson didn’t say whether the barista apologized or offered a free drink on his next visit. At that moment, the barista may have wished he had paid attention in his high physics class or milked cows on a farm. But whatever his educational or experiential deficiencies, the barista now has a visual tattoo on his brain that cream rises, not sinks. That’s the power of visual communications.
Visual explanations can show how a new product works, steps in a DIY repair or where to get a Passport. They can help walk someone through a complicated procedure or demystify a commonly held perception, like how baffling it is to assemble IKEA furniture.
An underutilized benefit of visual explanations, as Tyson demonstrated, is convincing skeptics. Demonstrations can do away with doubt about product utility or safety. Think seat belts in cars, which are ubiquitous today, but were viewed skeptically by automakers and motorists when they were first introduced. Pictures of people hurled through windshields contrasted to people wearing seat belts surviving serious crashes changed minds – and policy.
Proving someone is wrong is a touchy subject. You can say they are mistaken or ill-informed, but that is apt to make them mad. Showing that a proposition is true (or false) leaves little room for doubt without words. That “proof” can be a critical moment in closing a sale.
Visual explanations can take the form of a short video, animation, infomercial or infographic. Visual content can perform like a chorus. Well-designed print instructions can be enhanced by a video with troubleshooting tips.
The seeming simplicity of visual explanations belies the work it takes to create them. Effective visual explanations reflect successful simplification by their creators. Observing consumers interact with a product can provide clues about what confounds them about it, which can be ground zero for a visual explanation. Lots of technology companies, for example, would benefit by carefully showing how users can take advantage of their features through clever and entertaining visual explanations.
Infomercials may lack creative flourish, but they specialize in showing how a product can stop a leaky gutter, make a perfect omelet or prevent a deadly slip in a bathtub. That can make something seem irresistible. It also can do the same thing as plopping whipped cream in a cup of hot chocolate.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.