[IMGCAP(1)]"A picture is worth a thousand words" is probably one of the most overused clichés (and I’ve just added to that). But cliché or not, the foundation for the statement is based in science. While not true for everyone or in every circumstance, most of us process visual information faster when it’s presented as a graphic, rather than as a sentence or string of numbers.

According to some neuroscientists, there appears to be a very distinct difference between how a picture or image is processed in the brain when compared to how text is processed. I have no claim to great knowledge in neuroscience, but from what I’ve read on the subject, textual information seems to be processed with more precision, while comparative information tends to be processed more rapidly—though with less precision—when presented as a visual image.

My own experience seems to bear this out. Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when I was first doing write-ups on an Apple //, I offered a service to the firm’s clients to present their financial statements in graphic format in addition to the standard balance sheet and income statement. I charged extra for this, but the clients who subscribed to this service seemed to have a far better understanding of the information that was contained in the statements. Even better, no one complained about the extra cost (which is, in itself, remarkable). Back then, I used a graphics package called 35mm Express and a color dot matrix printer from Star Micronics. Over the years, I’ve used a variety of other applications. One of my favorites, 3DGraphics’ Amigo 2000, hasn’t been available for more than a decade. 

Pie charts, bar graphs and other fancy presentations are much easier to do today. The ribbon bar in Excel makes it a breeze to turn out some nice-looking charts. But pretty much everyone can do this. If you want your presentations to really make an impression, consider creating out-of-the-ordinary graphics rather than (or in addition to) standard charts.

Years ago, there were plenty of software packages to generate high-end graphics, such as the well-known Harvard Graphics. To a large extent, as the graphic capabilities inherent in applications like Excel and MS Word improved, most of these vanished from the market. That doesn’t mean there are no alternative applications for generating eye-popping graphics, just that many of them are now situated in the cloud.

One of the more unusual ones is Wordle. Wordle generates word clouds. Even if you are not familiar with the term, you’ve seen these. They are a group of words, generally having something to do with the information being presented, arrayed randomly in vertical and horizontal format creating an uneven cloud-like graphic. Wordle is free at this writing, so give it a try. You can use some of the headings on a set of financials as the words in your word cloud.

Another free app (again at the time I’m writing this) is at easel.ly. Easel.ly is a tool for creating infographics, and there are numerous templates that are available on the site to get you started.

Again, you’ve seen infographics pretty much everywhere, even if you didn’t know what to call them. The approach is to use an image along with number and text to project a great deal of information on a single page or screen. An excellent example of an infographic is this one from scanner vendor Visioneer. It’s simple, but defines a basic approach to document management and handling in a single page. And while it uses a minimum of words, it still manages to get the basics of paper management across very effectively.

A few other sites to look at include infogr.am (which is not free), Venngage (also not free) and Piktochart. A quick trip around these sites is sure to get your creative juices flowing and provide plenty of inspiration on how you can make better use of graphics. Visme is also an interesting site. It has free and paid versions and lets you develop presentations, infographics and more, all of which can be presented from the cloud (assuming you have an available internet connection), or downloaded as jpegs (except for animations).

Finally, if you have a moderate budget for a graphic application, take a look at SmartDraw. It’s somewhat expensive, starting at about $280, but the types of graphics you can create with it is astounding.

There are no cut-and-dry rules for using graphics to enhance your clients’ understanding of the information you are presenting. A lot of them are going to be specific to your clients, the particular information, and your imagination. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, the results can wow your clients and enhance your reputation and standing with them.

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