Note: This guest post by consumer insights professional Diana Powell was originally published on August 1, 2018. We updated it on August 18, 2020 to reflect current best practices and new product updates.
If you want to understand just how powerful a communication tool visuals can be, think about the popularity of internet memes.
Memes like Grumpy Cat, Evil Kermit, and Condescending Wonka have been shared hundreds of millions of times and have popped up everywhere from Twitter to PowerPoint presentations. By combining a recognizable image with a short caption or text overlay, memes tap into sentiments that couldn’t be conveyed as quickly or effectively through words alone.
When combined with the right text, visuals lead to richer communication. So why is it that when sharing internal knowledge, so many teams still rely heavily on the written word and frequently ignore the benefits of visual communication?
By leaving visuals out of our content, we’re missing an opportunity to quickly and concisely share complex information with our audience. We’re also making it harder than it should be to organize and identify our company documents, leading to wasted time and unnecessary headaches.
The Time-Saving and Sanity-Preserving Properties of Images
As a consumer insights professional, I have firsthand experience with the power of images to improve our understanding. After working in one department for about five years, I took a role in a completely different department within the organization, which required that I organize and share pertinent documents with the department I was leaving.
Sorting through and organizing my files was far more difficult than I anticipated. I tried sorting my files by title, which was not helpful. I tried sorting by date, making more obscure folders, and opening and closing files like a madman. Still a slow and painful process, still reading word after word.
Then a lightning bolt of inspiration struck my laptop and I, through divine cyberspace intervention, decided to view my files as thumbnails. Eureka!
Suddenly I recognized title slides and graphics and didn’t have to keep opening and closing my files to find what I was looking for. While thumbnails that were our generic company template weren’t that helpful, interesting vendor presentations and visual reports gave me an immediate reaction.
And it’s no wonder that this process was faster– according to marketing influencer Krista Neher, the human brain can process images up to 60,000 times faster than words. I had been wasting time reading vague titles for far too long.
The Benefits of Visual Communication in Knowledge Management
Moving into my new role, I was determined not to relive my file-hoarding lifestyle. Luckily, part of my new role included finding a way to organize and distribute new materials, so I got to start fresh. I also inherited a pile of documents that, to put it kindly, were about as organized as a pond full of carp going after a fresh handful of fish food.
As I learned more about knowledge management best practices, I realized how important it was to provide myself and my end users with a key visual. Here are a few reasons that you should identify key images for each of your files and find a way to utilize those photos in document recognition.
You’ll Put Your Documents in Context
A picture is worth a thousand words. Especially in presentations and shared reports, a key visual can trigger recognition of what the report is all about and communicate several memories or cues.
Often, visuals can serve as a metaphor, and a familiar image can be used to convey the meaning of a potentially complex piece of content. Images that help put documents in context could include brand logos, a key takeaway presented graphically, or a memorable photo that was part of the story.
You’ll Communicate More Than You Could With a Title
Document names are often obscure or generic. How many times have you been sent a file called “Q4 profit,” “Final report 7.12.17,” “Testing results 5.25 v4 DM” or something similar? I inherited a bunch of these and they didn’t mean much to me, or they confused me about which document I should use.
A key image, such as a graph or visual metaphor from a presentation, can often communicate more than a short title. But don’t underestimate the power of the title. When pairing a clear and concrete title with an informative image, communication multiplies, according to psychologists Shannon Harp and Richard Mayer.
You’ll Save Time
Another benefit of visual communication is that it can reduce the amount of time it takes to recognize a document. A study from MIT found that the human brain is capable of processing images in just 13 milliseconds.
The reason your brain can process images so much faster is because pictures enter our memory with two codes— a visual and a verbal, versus just a verbal code from a word. This speeds up our brain’s ability to recall content.
And it isn’t just rapid processing that saves us time when we use visuals to communicate. When you see a key visual, you don’t have to open the document and scroll through it to verify you have the correct file. This can help you streamline the process of organizing, categorizing, and moving documents.
You’ll Make Content More Memorable
Visual communication does more than speed up your brain’s recall time: it also helps you remember information longer than you would if you were looking at text alone.
One study tested this by asking students to try to remember groups of three words. When quizzed, those who created visual associations between the words were better able to remember the groups than those who tried to memorize the words through repetition alone.
If you want the content you share to stick with your colleagues for longer (and why wouldn’t you?), choose a visual that can be readily associated with the key takeaways of the written content. For example, if you’re sharing a report about the effects of coffee on productivity, a picture of a coffee mug sharing desk space with a pile of paperwork could help viewers remember the information in the report for longer.
Making Images Part of Your Knowledge Engagement Strategy
If you’re in any kind of role that requires you to share documents (and that’s most knowledge workers), you can use images to help ensure that others will quickly understand what your files contain.
If you’re using a knowledge engagement platform like Bloomfire, encourage all contributors to be intentional about their thumbnail image and to choose a concrete title. Instead of using the generic company template title slide, select a meaningful image that portrays the content and fits with the title. This simple action that only takes a few extra seconds will save your readers time, frustration, and confusion in the long run.
Bloomfire has recently made it even easier to add powerful visuals to content with our thumbnail library and stock image searching. Bloomfire community managers can now upload images to a thumbnail library in their Bloomfire community, allowing their content creators to quickly choose from a curated image set when they publish new posts. This can be especially valuable for organizations that want to create a standard visual shorthand for different types of content, such as news updates or process documents.
Users can also leverage our new stock image searching feature to browse and select freely-usable images from Unsplash without leaving the Bloomfire platform. This gives users a fast new way to select images and incentivizes them to choose impactful, eye-catching visuals for their content.
If you’re interested in seeing a full tour of our platform, including our powerful new visual communication tools, schedule a demo now.