Bonus Tactics article: Make your message visible: On becoming better visual storytellers

March 8, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Susan Suggs, APR

When you see or hear the words “data visualization,” what comes to mind?  For most PR practitioners, a first thought may be the photo or illustration that accompanies a news release.  After all, messaging is critical and many of us primarily work with words and strategies to influence a target audience. 

As we look for ways to broaden our reach and deepen our impact, I invite you to step out of your primary focus and think visually. Try having an image in mind as you craft a key message to reach today’s consumer who is smart, deluged and maybe a bit cynical.

I attended a series of data visualization workshops with speakers including Don Moyer, one of three founding principals of ThoughtForm, Inc. Don writes a monthly column for Harvard Business Review, called Panel Discussion, that attempts to teach a simple business lesson visually. He explains, “So many of the ideas that organizations need to communicate involve large-scale abstractions.  Creating a visual explanation can make the idea vivid in a way that words alone can’t match.  People spend their whole lives in a real, tangible, physical world.  So we think best about real, tangible, physical things — stories about things doing things to other things.  We prefer people.  We demand verbs.”

For PR professionals to be better visual storytellers, how about a problem-solving outline or a direct human interest story?  Is your visual a triangle, or is your organization building a circle?  Moyer says, “Our favorite stories involve the tension of opening a gap — a problem, a mystery, a challenge.  The audience stays tuned until the gap is closed.  It may help some writers to draw a napkin sketch of key players, relationships and the gaps that must be closed.  Having the details clear in your mind can’t help but make you a better writer.”

The more visual you can make your data, the greater its potential impact due to a stronger impression and better recall.  Audiences today mine data for the short vignette that encapsulates the best and brightest ideas.  Look at the emerging format of the “social news release” designed to summarize a big idea in a few key sentences with a meaningful headline, but also providing links to a comprehensive company background, key data supporting the main statements and references to supplemental material (white paper, expert comment, etc.)  Audiences still want access to pertinent data, but perception of key messages improves when delivered with an understanding of the billboard attention span of today’s media-infused consumer.

The right reception

For PR messaging to be effective, we know it is a multistep hurdle: the right message, the right medium and the right reception. Was the message heard and understood?  Today the audience is a more active participant.  The force of illustrates this power of the people principle.  Another example, Time magazine named “You” the Person of the Year 2006 because “you” control the Information Age.

“Meaning is always built by the audience.  The communicator’s job is to put enough clues on the path and to try to avoid installing obstacles.  Sometimes what your listeners hear is more interesting than what you’ve actually said,” according to Moyer.

Have you tested your message with your more empowered target audience?  What did they hear, and how does it compare to your objective?   No time or budget for a focus group or survey?  Everyone is talking about emerging social media, but the most powerful reminders for PR professionals is:  We are people talking to people. Technology is not so much the revolution as is the power to get to know your audience, one on one.   

This holds true for business-to-business communications, too.  Today’s corporate communications occur between individuals making connections through a range of channels, some of the most effective being person-to-person technology.

Moyer suggests, “To connect with and persuade people calls for finding unexpected ways to share an idea.  Writers and designers should be looking for ways to show unexpected connections or contrasts that are relevant to the big idea. When events go against our expectations, human beings pay attention.  A good visual explanation can do this, but so can a good paragraph or headline.  We all pay attention to surprises.” The exciting opportunities for PR practitioners lie in taking a new perspective on more visual storytelling and engaging the audience in a dialogue. Try making your message more visual, and listen to what your audience has to say.  You may discover new connections and maybe even surprise yourself.

Susan Suggs, APR, is a senior associate at DLR Group, a national provider of architectural and engineering services. For a list of resources related to data visualization, e-mail: 


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