Have you ever had an experience where you put loads of effort into a written report and the person reading your work has misinterpreted your key points? You made sure to describe the situation and possible solutions in great detail, but they just don’t seem to get it as you do. Most people have experienced this at some point and you may have followed up to provide the reader with the added clarification needed. Did you ever stop and think about the reason why it wasn’t clear in the first place? Your content was clear enough. You covered all the relevant arguments and your follow-up discussion basically just went through, explaining each of your key points. How can you stop this from happening again? 

Different people see the world and interpret information in different ways, and in particular, written words. Did you know that the majority of people have a natural tendency to process words visually? According to Michel Deza and Elena Deza (2009), almost two thirds of the general population see and process words as pictures or images. For example, if you are one of the majority who tend to think visually, then in your mind you might compile (very quickly) an image or series of images to be processed to achieve your understanding of those written words. 

I for one, fall into the camp of visual thinkers and even as I write this blog, I find my head is filled with images that I ‘think’ support what I am writing. Later, I might make edits because the images I see when I re-read my text may not quite line up to the story I was trying to tell. Why am I telling you this? The point is that people are different and will understand information – especially in written form – based on how their mind interprets it, which may or may not be aligned to what the original content was intended to convey.

It’s important you know your audience and appreciate others may not interpret written text as you do. This isn’t always a serious problem, but it can be and if you take care to think about how your words will be understood, then perhaps it won’t happen very often. I have seen examples of this happening is all manner of roles and although important to everyone, I think this is a very important point of learning for project managers in particular.

At some point in your life, like me, you have probably sent that email, posted that status update on social media, or showing your presentation to the board and then only after others have had the chance to see it, you realise that the message received wasn’t exactly what you meant it to be. I’m not talking about those silly typos or random (I hate them) autocorrects, I’m talking about those perfectly curated words that you thoughtfully crafted to tell your story. You understood EXACTLY what you meant and naturally, expected others would read it and come away with the same understanding – but they didn’t. Admit it – it’s happened at least once in your life.

Most of the time, the consequence of the reader misunderstanding the intended message is minor and is just a simple misunderstanding. However, sometimes it can be much more serious. I don’t profess to be an expert in language or in neurological sciences, however throughout my career I have learned that you need to cater to your audience and communicate in a way that can be understood as you intended. Given that 2 out of 3 of us have a tendency to process written words as images or pictures, doesn’t it make sense to include visual content along with your written messaging? In fact, why not cut right back on the written content and use images to convey your key messages. I’m not suggesting you translate all your Keynote presentations into strings of emojis, but I would strongly advise trying to find a balance where your content is conveyed with important key wording supplemented by meaningful images.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

Early on in my career, I was in the military – the Royal Australian Navy to be exact – and those first few years were filled with rules and regulations, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and endless numbered forms to be filled in.

If you didn’t read and understand what was written in black and white, then there could be serious consequences – or so I was told. 

Even though my life at the time revolved around never-ending written instructions which told me what to do and when to do it, it was actually the visual cues (and pictures in the manuals) that helped me understand exactly what I needed to know – where to be, what time to be there, how to do my job and how to remain safe while doing it. Even though I am very much a visual thinker and learner, I thrived in an environment that supported a balanced approach to learning, including a balance of visuals, even when the content was extremely technical and detailed.

I’ve come a long way since those days, however I still find that I prefer a balance of images and visual cues, in addition to written text – especially when learning something new. I am still surprised, even today, that some people continue to seek to share important information almost entirely in written form. As if expecting that the slide deck they have compiled is intended to be presented to a roomful of clones of themselves – all programmed to interpret the information 100% as intended. Get real – this isn’t how people work. Several years ago, I joined a new organisation and was immediately handed several large binders of documents and instructed to read and understand all content by the end of the week. Later on that first day, I was channeled off to an auditorium to be given a presentation on vital HR ‘stuff’ that was very important. 

Two hours later, I returned to my office with my eyes hanging out of my head and the room spinning. The ‘presentation’ had indeed been a 90 minute fast-paced deck of what seemed like 300 slides –

each looking the same with endless 8-point font and the only thing to be found resembling an image, was the company logo. Fair to say, I absorbed practically zero from that one.

Move on a few years and I found myself at another organisation that was definitely hip to the visual world. Great, I thought – cool photos coupled with crafty slogans adorned the walls and so too did the periodic leadership updates that were emailed around. Here, I had the visual stimulation I craved, however the meaning behind it was often left very much open to interpretation with very limited accompanying text. Again, not overly effective – at least as far as I was concerned.

I am conscious that I have spent the last minute or so of your reading time, explaining my inability to make sense out of lengthy and heavily detailed text documents and an equal inability to interpret the meaning of images when presented in isolation. Well, this isn’t quite true. I just happen to work better and enjoy it more when I am somewhere in the middle, with an appropriate balance of both visuals and text. It’s always going to depend on your audience, but in my experience, it is nearly always somewhere close to the middle. 

A practical example

I have worked a lot with project managers over the years, each with their own individual style and preferred method of communicating. Project management can be a highly demanding and technical job and information such as project status reports, timelines, work breakdown structures, and budget reports must often be shared with a variety of stakeholders. Most project managers I have come across know their stuff well and do a great job of planning and managing technical tasks in their projects as they are often the technical or process expert as well. 

One area where I continue to see a significant challenge with project management is with the communication of detailed project information to a non-technical audience. In particular, project reporting. Often, project reporting is condensed down to a single page with text explaining the scope of the project, perhaps the recent progress or achievements, any risks or issues encountered, and if your lucky, a token traffic light (or two) to indicate the overall progress or risk status. I’m not saying such documents are inaccurate or not useful, however I’ve found that you generally need a magnifying glass to spot what has changed from one reporting period to the next. In many cases, especially in long-term projects, you almost need to hold a print-out of consecutive reports up to the light to see where the text has changed. 

By the way, this isn’t just a challenge for the visual thinkers among us. In some cases there is so much information crammed onto a single page that there is no point printing it out and you need to activate the accessories zoom feature on your computer to read it all. Maybe that’s just me though. Whether you have a strong preference for text or visuals, such reports can be difficult to interpret. To be fair to project managers, the reporting requirements are often specified by someone else – possibly one of the key stakeholders, leadership, or worse still, “that’s just the way we’ve always done it”. The way I see it, project reporting is about sharing relevant information to key stakeholders, who will each seek out the relevant information that is important to them. Each stakeholder probably needs something different and since we are all people after all, each stakeholder probably has their own way to extract and interpret just the key information they care about.

All hope is not lost

I’m not advocating that everyone should move to only presenting project data visually, but I do think that with the abundance of project visualisation tools available today, organisations should be embracing them and capitalise on concise and meaningful reporting. The added benefit of many of these newer tools is that they provide very good, in-built collaboration and so everyone within a project team is able to see and interact with project data and information in realtime – and can often select whether they want to view data visually or in tabular form. Tools like GanttPRO, WorkOtter, Clarizen and many more, all offer comprehensive project management features where project data can be readily visualised and different views can also be created for the different types of users you may have. Visual dashboards and reporting are a real asset in today’s world – especially when users and stakeholders can view it online in real time rather than have to receive a monthly narrative report.

Project reporting is often seen as a chore that is done at the end of each month and usually serves very little purpose to the project manager or the lucky individual tasked with pulling the information together in the specified format. It is quite likely no benefit – or fun – for you, and probably of limited value to the people that end up reading through it’s entirety.

What has my point been, I might hear you ask? Well, you, me, your boss… we’re all different and we all take different value from the written words on the page in front of us. For some of you and for people like me, you may find this blog itself too wordy and not enough images supporting what I’m saying (I do hope not), but hopefully it is short enough and has made for an easy read in your lunch break. Clear and concise text is important, but equally so, including a balance of images or visuals to support your message can help you to be understood as you intended. 

At 3E, we believe that PEOPLE, PROCESS, CULTURE AND SYSTEMS should be in sync in order for you to be successful. Whether you are in project management or any other field, it remains very important to know your audience and find a balanced approach when communicating. Coming from a technical background, I find it even more important as we are often communicating with non-technical people and it is critical your audience understand the key messages you need them to understand. Our colleagues can provide the insight and tools your teams may need to communicate more effectively. People and the language they use are fundamental to the effectiveness of teams – even more so at present where remote working limits the natural interactions that would normally take place in the workplace. Additionally, we can work with you to co-create and implement a solution to reinforce a culture of collaboration and effective communication.