Last week I was fortunate enough to meet someone who knows better than anyone how visual content is far more effective than text at conveying complex messages.
Carl Richards, a financial adviser in Utah, started using simple sketches to help clients understand difficult concepts. Despite having no formal artistic training, he soon discovered the approach worked wonders. He now sells sketches on his website and produces the weekly Sketch Guy column for the New York Times. He's in demand as a speaker in the US and Europe and his work is even exhibited in galleries.
I hope this interview inspires you to explore the potential of visual content - whether it's sketches, photos, infographics or videos - for your own organisation.
ROBIN: Thank you, Carl, for finding time in your busy schedule to talk to us. How did you have the idea to communicate through sketches?
CARL: I was sitting across the table from clients, trying to explain things that they thought were really complex. They were making some of the most important decisions of their lives, and I was explaining things they needed to know, but they'd just have a blank stare on their face. I had that experience over and over and realised that using the same language wasn't working. One day I looked up and there was a whiteboard on the board, and I thought, "Maybe this will work?" I remember the mood changing. People began to understand things. They would say, "I get it now". Thats when it clicked that if we can make concepts visual, people will understand them better.
You soon built an international reputation - and a thriving business, Behavior Gap - off the back of it. How did you manage that?
One day a client said, "Can you put what you did on the whiteboard on a piece of paper for me so I can show my spouse when I get home?" A couple of weeks later, someone asked me to scan a sketch and put it in an email to them. I thought that if I could send it to one person I could send it to as many people as I wanted to. So I put these drawings up on a website. At first I think it was just my mother who was viewing it, but after a while, slowly things started building. Through a series of random events I got an email from the Your Money editor of the New York Times. Literally his email said, "I love these. Will you do them for us?" That's been going on every week for three-and-a-half years. And that led to a book and speaking engagements.
You don't have any background or formal training an art, yet you're now considered an accomplished artist. How did that happen?
I got asked by an art gallery in Utah if I would do an art show for them. It was a 50-piece solo show in their main gallery. I called one of my friends who was a real artist. There was an old weathered chalkboard in my office, and he said, "Why don't you use chalkboards?" It seemed a crazy idea, but we got a bunch of chalkboards and did this show. That got a bit of news, and I got invited to do a one-night show at the Mansion House in London, and then another show in the Netherlands.
What is it about financial services that makes it such a suitable subject for this sort of visual communication?
People find making important decisions about money really complex - whether it's investing or budgeting or risk management. They don't understand the words we're using as an industry. So you have this interesting confluence of really important decisions and incredibly complex material. These decisions have become more important as the world has got to feel more volatile or risky. People have felt more personal responsibility, but they can't figure things out because it's all so complex. Then they see an image and say, "Ah, I understand that." I think that's it.
Generally, what are the advantages of visual content over text?
First, there are a lot of us who learn better visually. The second thing to me is that I think of these images not as simplistic, but as either a short cut or a souvenir. A short cut is a quick way way to understand a concept faster than if I had to read the whole thing. Or maybe I see the image and then read the article, in which case I've already got a short cut to the main point. A souvenir is an icon of the experience the customer has gone through. I only have so much mental RAM in my head. I only have room for one big problem at a time. So I'll dive into it and understand it as much as I can, and at the end I want a nice little icon to wrap up what that experience was. I think the benefit of using visuals is that it forces you to narrow it down to just one point. It makes you ask yourself, what is the one thing I'm trying to get across and how can I visualise that? To me that makes huge difference.
What advice would you give to companies - whether in financial services or not - who are thinking of making their content more visual?
Even if you don't end up using it, I think the exercise is useful because it forces you to simplify. How could you take that 20-page PowerPoint presentation you've just designed with 57 bullet points, cut it down to five images, and tell a story around those five images, so that it's actually a memorable experience rather than "death by PowerPoint"? It makes you think, if I could make just one point, what would that point be? And could I wrap that point up in a nice visual?