visual explanations

Whipped Cream and the Value of Visual Explanations

A visual explanation can be worth a lot more than a thousand words to show how a product works, steps for a DIY repair or proving cream always rises to the top.

A visual explanation can be worth a lot more than a thousand words to show how a product works, steps for a DIY repair or proving cream always rises to the top.

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.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is known for his cosmic-cocktail ability to explain  complicated subjects simply , used a visual explanation to school a coffee shop barista about the properties of whipped cream.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is known for his cosmic-cocktail ability to explain complicated subjects simply, used a visual explanation to school a coffee shop barista about the properties of whipped cream.

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.

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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 garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

A Good Nonprofit Name Makes a Mission Memorable

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but may not provide a clue to a nonprofit’s mission. A good name can make a mission clear and memorable.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but may not provide a clue to a nonprofit’s mission. A good name can make a mission clear and memorable.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ but is the same true for a brand? Maybe not. A good name is an important clue, sweet or otherwise.

Companies, as well as nonprofits, go to considerable lengths to pick names for their organizations, products and services that attract consumers and donors. They want a name that conveys their brand personality, if not describing what the brand is all about. Think “Jet Ski” or “Salvation Army.”

Shakespeare’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet suggests the separation between a name and its essence is illusory. A rose is a rose, after all, no matter what you call it. The contemporary dilemma is to select a name that is unmistakably linked to what it is.

Lots of brands and products have names with no apparent intrinsic meaning. All of those drug names you see in commercials come to mind. To the extent that you attach a thought to the drug name, it may be on the list of its possible side effects.

The lesson to draw from ubiquitous drug commercials is that their meaning is conveyed by visual imagery – someone suffering from rheumatoid arthritis being able to play with her grandchildren or someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease being able to go on a hike.

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Brands have logos to go with their name. In the case of high-profile brands with million-dollar advertising budgets and loads of product placements, logos can become everyday familiar – Nike’s Swoosh is a perfect example. Some companies (Intel, American Family Insurance) associate their name and logo with an earworm jingle. Others (Jack in the Box) have characters. Some nonprofits (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital) command national attention because of their size and the connections of their founders.

For many brands and most nonprofits, more cost-conscious tactics are necessary. One of the most cost-effective tactics is a good name combined with a logo, tagline and iconography that provide a visual explanation and leave a memorable impression.

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While the Pittsburgh Zoo is a self-explanatory name, its black-and-white iconography underscores a sense of playful discovery. The logo for the Bronx Zoo features animals, too, and uses the elongated legs of giraffes to give it a sense of place near Manhattan. The Tour de France uses a unique script that forms a logo and emphasizes its Frenchness.

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Finding a name that conveys meaning and has the potential to become familiar is the core challenge of building an identity. Names such as World Wide Fund for Nature, Doctors Without Borders, Feeding America, Stand up to Cancer, Save the Whales and Teach for America are evocative and instructive. You have a pretty good idea what these nonprofits do. While they all have excellent logos, their names are the pack mules of meaning.

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One of the secrets of these names is they incorporate each nonprofit’s mission. They use short, concrete and powerful words. They roll off the tongue. Some of the best nonprofit names (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers – MADD) form easy-to-remember acronyms.

There is no fixed formula to devise a brand or nonprofit name. But a good place to start is exploring simplified ways to express a mission and turn them into inspirational names, taglines and images. Then test the names and imagery with staff, stakeholders and donors. It is an iterative process, but not rocket science.

The effort is worth it. A solid name can create a second “first” impression, pump up morale, increase financial support, perk interest on social media and redouble commitment to the mission. That would be a sweet-smelling rose.