visual communications

How Simplicity Teams with Creativity for Public Affairs Results

For many it is hard to accept that subtracting details can result in greater results, but that’s the reality of how simplicity teams with creativity to produce easy-to-grasp, compelling storytelling. It even works in the field of public affairs.

For many it is hard to accept that subtracting details can result in greater results, but that’s the reality of how simplicity teams with creativity to produce easy-to-grasp, compelling storytelling. It even works in the field of public affairs.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then simplicity is the father of creativity. That’s certainly true in the world of public affairs.

Creativity through simplicity in public affairs is not an exercise in dumbing down a subject. It involves the thoughtful reduction of details to reach the essence of a subject so it is instantly recognizable and compelling. The end result may be a creative argument, snappy catch-phrase, strategic plan or clever solution to a vexing problem. The result also could be as basic as unraveling the “complexity” manufactured as a smokescreen by opponents.

Representing industrial energy customers several years back, I and others lobbied for an admittedly complex measure to allow manufacturers that use large amounts of electricity to purchase energy from a non-utility provider. Utility opponents managed to scuttle the legislation by calling it too complex.

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When we brought back the bill in the next legislative session, we did two critical things – we simplified how the bill was written and we replaced our fact sheets with a flipchart. We began every meeting with a legislator by saying, “This issue is not really complex. Let us show you why.”

The flipchart walked through how electricity is distributed, explained why large industrial customers were often electricity generators and outlined the specific provisions of the bill. The debate shifted from complicated, confusing details to the merits of the legislation’s key provisions, which included investments in energy conservation and efficiency. The bill passed easily with strong bipartisan support. 

Infographics are a perfect example of simplicity and creativity working in tandem. The first infographic shows the effect of three pieces of legislation on a wine bottle label. The second debunks the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. Both convey a lot of information in a small amount of visual real estate, leaving no doubt about their key messages.

Infographics are a perfect example of simplicity and creativity working in tandem. The first infographic shows the effect of three pieces of legislation on a wine bottle label. The second debunks the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. Both convey a lot of information in a small amount of visual real estate, leaving no doubt about their key messages.

Conventional wisdom may reject the notion that subtraction is creative. Clients usually want ‘more’ options, more details, more justification rather than ‘less’ complication and confusion. They want to throw mud against the wall to see what sticks. They can’t conceive that simplicity is the creative key to unlock understanding.

The phrase “making ideas take shape” is uncannily on point to describe the path from simplicity to creativity. The “shape” can be an image, a chart or a well-turned phrase, but it has a readily accessible form, something familiar that human brains can digest and file away.

Infographics have earned popularity by saying a lot simply and visually. They can illustrate a key point, sequentially walk a viewer through an issue or show how something works. This “show me” approach to information-sharing is a perfect example of creative simplicity. 

People have complex mental capacities, but they absorb information in relatively simple, elemental ways. Conveying information in an elemental form improves the odds that the intended audience will receive and bank your message.

Creativity can be clever. However, just as often creativity is useful and practical. By focusing on the one thing that is most important, we uncomplicate a subject for an audience. The ability to simplify eliminates the unnecessary so the necessary has space to speak. You create clarity out of chaos.

Your best creative tool is curiosity. Do more than see what is going on around you. Observe it carefully and learn how the simplest things can convey rich meaning creatively. Making something complex seem simple takes hard work. You better get started.

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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.

 

Visualizing the Four Essential Freedoms – Then and Now

The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

As war ravaged Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech in 1941 that extolled what he called “four essential freedoms” –  freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He gave a better-known speech later that year after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

FDR’s powerful and aspirational message about a postwar world might have been lost in historical dust except for four remarkable paintings by America’s painter Norman Rockwell that turned the message into tangible imagery.

On their 75th anniversary, the Rockwell paintings are going on tour, along with subsequent depictions of Roosevelt’s four freedoms, including works by artists who put their own modern twist on what those freedoms mean – or may not mean.

Rockwell wrote in his autobiography he was inspired to create the paintings by FDR’s lofty ideals and by watching a citizen at a Vermont town meeting espousing an unpopular view. His paintings give life to both the ideals and the humanity of FDR’s words.

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The Rockwell paintings are a prime example of how abstract thoughts can be translated into pictures with an impact. The paintings appeared one by one over four weeks in the Saturday Evening Post magazine. They captured the imagination of Americans at a time when the outcome of the war was far from decided.

Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

"One of Rockwell's most remarkable aspects was that he could paint across such a wide spectrum of subjects," Norman Rockwell Museum Director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt said in an interview with The Berkshire Eagle. "`Four Freedoms' are among his most enduring masterpieces."

In the past week, the nation has witnessed in the memorials to the late Senator John McCain a procession of symbolic acts to underscore core views that McCain held dear – honor, principle and respect. His memorial also reminded Americans of the value of civil dialogue and considered compromise.

At a time that former President Obama noted in his eulogy of McCain when political discourse has become “small, mean and petty,” McCain’s last act was to put on a how to extol American bedrock values embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. His orchestrated memorials could have the same effect as Rockwell’s paintings.

"These paintings remind us to ask ourselves, what freedoms are we prepared to stand for today?" Norton Moffatt said. "All of these questions are uppermost in people's minds today – how far should government go to keep us safe and potentially tread on the rights and freedoms of an open society that our democracy is built on."

Rockwell’s paintings “gave people something to remember,” the Smithsonian reported. It resonated because the people living out the four freedoms were ordinary Americans.

Rockwell’s paintings have inspired newer generations of interpretations of the four freedoms, ones that show faces of diversity and contemporary applications, like the photograph of the family table where the grandfather is taking a selfie and the children are tuned into their devices. They also reflect the marginalization some Americans feel regarding their freedoms, such as the painting that depicts an African-American man cast a worried look out the window as his wife tucks away their two children. The man is holding a newspaper with a headline about a black man who died after being strangled by police.

The original Rockwell paintings and their re-imagined descendants with modern visual messaging betray a trait of the American democracy the original and new art celebrate – the intergenerational exchange of ideas. While the words may have grown stale, the images remain vibrant, certainly vibrant enough to continue to stir debate and modern imitation and reinvention. 

Roosevelt and Rockwell would undoubtedly be delighted. So would McCain.

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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

How Instruction Manuals Can be Instructive

Instruction manuals have evolved into online documents, videos and infomercials, but the evolutionary process has underscored some basic communications principles, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera instructions on how to load the film – and to shoot great pictures

Instruction manuals have evolved into online documents, videos and infomercials, but the evolutionary process has underscored some basic communications principles, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera instructions on how to load the film – and to shoot great pictures

Instruction manuals are supposed to explain how something works or how to assemble something. The thought of an instruction manual induces dread in many people, but their evolution offers useful clues for today’s challenge of showing people what you mean.

Inventor James Watt paved the way for modern instruction manuals – and communications – by gluing simple, sequential instructions on his ingenious document copier. Simple, clear and accessible remains as byways to effective communications.

Inventor James Watt paved the way for modern instruction manuals – and communications – by gluing simple, sequential instructions on his ingenious document copier. Simple, clear and accessible remains as byways to effective communications.

According to Helene Schumacher, writing for the BBC, the first instruction manual was created by inventor James Watt, who advanced steam engine technology in the 1800s. Watt’s instruction “manual” was for his early, but effective document copier. His instructions were simple steps – take a sheet of paper with damp ink, put it on top of a blank sheet of paper, wrap it in a blanket and push it through the rollers. Watt glued the instructions to his copier.

Simple and easy to find – characteristics that still hold true for visual communications today.

Instruction manuals have proliferated in direct proportion to the number of new machines for industry and gadgets for households. Some are very technical and some are meant to make technical information easy to understand by non-technical people. Eventually, we evolved to instruction manuals explaining all the technology on our cars and how to assemble Swedish-made furniture.

People with some gray in their hair remember when instruction manuals were mostly all text. Often gobs and pages of text. Over time, instructions come as a set of sequential illustrations and, more recently, as videos. Even when there is text, it is written to be understood and not like a test question for an engineering student.

Printed instruction manuals have given way to online versions. Many instructions now follow Watt’s example of being integrated into a product so you can see them as you work.

Instead of being technical or procedural, instructions are often combined with recommendations for how to use a product. In her article, Schumacher cites the instructions that accompanied Kodak’s Brownie camera. It explained how to load film in the camera as well as hared tips on how to take a great picture.

You could view Kodak’s instruction as a form of branding. For years, Apple’s advertising for its Mac computers, iPhones and iPads have featured what you can do with their devices more than showcase their features. Interestingly, Apple doesn’t provide instruction manuals because it doesn’t want you fooling around with what it makes.

More complicated devices have led to more complicated instructions. However, product developers have taken steps to reduce the complications through design, which requires less complicated instructions.

Making instructions more user friendly is not just related to customer satisfaction; it also has become part of the consumer journey to buy products. People go online to check out a product before they purchase it.

Technology advances are influencing instruction manuals. Artificial intelligence and augmented reality are coming into use in ways that meld instruction with initial experience of a product. QR codes are being integrated with instruction manuals so you can quickly find the information you need without thumbing through pages or scrolling online.

Just about every instruction manual innovation mirrors communications best practices – simplified design, relevant information, visual explanations, online versatility, technologically savvy, customer friendly.

Who would have thought instruction manuals could reveal the qualities of effective communications.

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.

 

Storytelling with the Showmanship of Charts

Charts don’t have be dull, eye-boggling data dumps. They can tell stories in lively, colorful and entertaining ways if you put your imagination to work converting data into doodles.

Charts don’t have be dull, eye-boggling data dumps. They can tell stories in lively, colorful and entertaining ways if you put your imagination to work converting data into doodles.

Charts are an undervalued storytelling device. The problem with most charts is that they are designed by number nerds, not storytellers.

With apologies to Excel users, showing a bunch of numbers doesn’t equal a good story. Explaining what the numbers mean is the storyline that is missing.

There are many ways charts can tell stories powerfully. Here are some:

Simple Charts

Southwest Airlines introduced itself with large ads that featured a single chart comparing its fares from Portland to several destinations with other airlines. The simplicity of the chart made it impossible to miss the message – Southwest Airlines was the low-cost alternative.

The airline reprised that original chart recently with a similar simple chart illustrating the baggage and other fees that Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge. Not fancy, but effective.

Annotated Charts

Portland-based economist Bill Conerly produces the Businomics Newsletter that contains a lot of data rendered in charts. Conerly annotates the charts with what amounts to a key message that puts the data into a meaningful context.

Complex Charts

Visual communications guru Edward Tufte deplores PowerPoint because of its reductionist character. He advocates sharing complex data in comprehensible packages. His favorite example is a chart depicting Napolean’s ill-fated march to Moscow. Created by Charles Joseph Minard, the graphic plots the demise of Napoleon’s dancing and retreating army to temperature and time scales. The story of what happened is inescapable despite the detail.

Entertaining Charts

Playing off the idea of a pie chart, the graphic  below serves as a teaching tool for effective writing. It puts a lot of information on the plate in an easy-to-grasp, viewer-friendly fashion.

Explanatory Chart

Charts can act as visual explanations, as does this graphic in explaining the appropriate volume for voices for children from the classroom to playground.

This graphic uses a cat motif to explain the essence of various social media sites.

Shareable Chart

Charts in the shape of infographics can be highly informative and suitable for sharing. They are effectively scrollable stories.

Teachable Moment Charts

Charts can depict the dangers to virtue or use data to warn of drowning in too much data.

The bottom line is that charts can tell stories, but it takes more than 3D pie charts and data points. It takes a little imagination to picture how your data can show a story.

Gary Conkling is president 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.

The Architecture of Effective Content

What you say is important, but how you arrange it and make it useful to your audience is what really counts.Engaging content is an impressive, effective way to strut what you know. While it is important where you post your content, it may be more important to consider how you organize it.

Blogs, white papers, case studies, webinars and books are established venues for thought leadership. But you won't necessarily connect with your intended audience unless you package your ideas in a way that attracts and sustains attention and delivers useful information of value.

In all likelihood, your audience isn't all alike. Some people will want the top-line details of what you have to say. Others will want more detail. Some may want the whole magilla. The architecture of your presentation should simulate an onion. The more you peel, the more layers you find.

Effective website design capitalizes on layered information, but there is no reason it cannot be incorporated into all thought leadership content.

The most readable blogs are shorter and to the point, but they can add depth and detail, without extending the length, by inserting charts, infographs and links. In addition to providing the motivated viewer with more information, charts and infographs offer visual variety and lengthen the time someone looks over your blog.

White papers are usually 10 pages or longer, which can be a lot to read for the casual viewer. The key here is providing a quick synopsis up front of what's in the white paper. Liberal use of subheads will break up the copy and make the content easier to digest. A good way to add emphasis to points are pull-out quotes or small vignettes that illustrate your point, which can be positioned to the side of the main content, much like a newspaper sidebar. A bibliography and links can fill out the white paper's potential to deliver a large-scale pop.

The advent of e-books creates an opportunity for a multi-media, updatable content platform. Unlike a traditional print book, an e-book can tell a story using words, photography, podcasts and video.

Case studies don't have to be dry, self-aggrandizing commercials. They could be in the form of a SlideShare presentation that resembles a TV commercial, with a quick explanation of the problem, what you did the solve the problem and a testimonial by the customer or client you helped. You can always back up the movie version with a more traditional case study narrative, which provides specifics on your research techniques and communications strategies.

Webinars have become commonplace because they allow people from a wide geographical area to attend while sitting at their desk or in a coffee shop. Too often, webinars take the form of college class lectures, with an invisible talking head. Other than questions emailed to someone who filters through them, there is typically little interaction. Instead of telling webinar participants what you know, a novel approach might to use one or more examples and show them how you work, encouraging group engagement as you proceed. This way, your attendees go from listening to the master to watching the master work her magic.

Original content is a persuasive tool. But how you say it is as important as what you say. You can achieve the optimal result if you think in advance of how to arrange your content to appeal to all of your viewers. The arrangement you choose should reflect what your viewers want to know, not just what you want to say.