As product managers, we communicate with everyone: engineers, designers, sales, account managers, marketing, you name it.
Our products are complex and we are seen as the resident experts.
We clarify product requirements with engineers, help our sales team overcome objections, and assist our customer success team on getting the most out of products.
One of the most valuable skills I’ve found in helping to communicate quickly and accurately is visual thinking.
How many times have you turned to a white board for clarification?
How much easier is to work out a design problem with a pen and paper in hand?
Why do we spend so many hours on charts and graphs in our presentations?
As the cliche goes, pictures are worth a thousand words, and in many cases, much more.
But far too often, I hear people say they are not creative. They can’t draw. They aren’t artists.
But I’m willing to bet each and every one of you drew, colored, and created as kids.
Somewhere along the line, our logical brains take over, rather than letting us create and explore, we evaluate and judge.
In school, we develop our verbal, quantitative, and analytical skills. But rarely do we work on our visual thinking skills.
Naturally, we aren’t very good at them.
Fortunately, it’s not too hard to change that. You don’t have to be Rembrandt or Picasso, to communicate visually.
Nor do you have to go back to school to build the fundamentals.
There are a few simple things you can do to help develop your visual skills.
Keep an Idea Log
Carry a sketch book with you.
Draw out your ideas as they occur to you throughout the day.
You’ll be surprised by how many ideas you have that go nowhere simply because you have no means for capturing them.
I had to do this as an undergrad in all of my design classes. I was not an artist.
Most of my feedback from the instructors was essentially, “draw more, use fewer words”.
But I kept with it. I got better.
I never learned to draw per se, but I did learn to capture my ideas with pictures.
Use visual tools like Mind Maps and Concept Maps
For people who really struggle with drawing, this might be an easier place to start.
Both help you to think about concepts in relation to space.
You are still using words, but you are grouping related concepts spatially, so you’ll still exercise your visual thinking muscle.
Combine images to get your point across.
If drawing really gets in your way, search the web for images. Mix and match to get your point across.
Of course, if you are creating a visual to be used beyond your own personal use, abide by copyright laws. But there are plenty of free stock image sites out there.
Basically, do whatever it takes to get started. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will get.
You’ll be surprised how effectively you can communicate with crude images.
If you are like me and learn best by reading, here are a few books, you can try:
The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures
There is no better book for walking through the benefits and basics of visual thinking. You won’t regret picking this one up.
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
A book about comics might seem frivolous, but this book is packed full of visual goodness. I can’t say enough good things about this book. Just trust me on this one.
Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery
If everyone had to read this book, we might actually start looking forward to PowerPoint presentations. This is a great tutorial on the power of images.
Do you have other methods for improving visual communication skills? Or have you found other books to be helpful? If so, please leave a comment.
Susan Barrett-Kelly says
Thanks for the reminder on the the value of Back of the Napkin. I’ve picked it up and put it down several times at the bookstore. Now, it will find a permanent home.
While not exclusively about visual skills, I still find an oldie but goodie helpful. Thinkertoys offers play as a means of priming creative thinking. It embeds the creation and manipulation of visual in many of it’s exercises.
Wow, ThinkerToys looks great. I can’t wait to get started with it. Thanks for the recommendation.
Arian Maybod says
When I saw the title of this article, Build Your Visual Communication Skills, the first thing that came to my mind was The Back of the Napkin. Great recommendation and it is truly a great book for junior product managers!
Presentation Zen is a fabulous book. For those who do not consider themselves an artist, I would highly recommend reading the book “Sketching User Experiences”. The book is a perfect introduction for anyone who desires to pick up the pen, or pencil, and start sketching to develop, clarify, and sell his or her ideas.
Thanks, Adrian. “Sketching User Experiences” does look good. I look forward to reading it.