To convey vision, use Big Picture communication

Big Picture illustration

How to bring your vision or strategy to life with Big Picture communication, so your people get it, remember it, believe in it – and know what they need to do make it happen.

“Look, we’ve got a crystal-clear vision for this business,” a CEO of a global business once told me, having spent, it seemed to me, the GDP of a small country with a consulting firm to get to it.

I sat at his shiny boardroom table, sharpening my employee-engagement pencil to make notes. “We need to grow market share by X% against a background of declining volumes, we need upper-quartile EBIT, we need to improve ROI by Y% and we need to cut headcount and waste by Z%. But when I talk to people about all this, no-one seems to get it – they just stare at me blankly. What do they want me to do? Draw them a [expletive deleted!] diagram?”

“Well, probably, yes…I think that would help enormously,” I replied. And so began a project to bring his vision (the clue is in the word) to life globally so that everyone in the business, at all levels and all around the world, could see what he meant, could remember it, believe in it and, most importantly, knew what they needed to do to make it a reality.

And we did it by literally painting a picture of success for the organisation using a visual metaphor that the CEO termed the ‘Big Picture communication.’

So why did we go down this visual route as opposed to the traditional PowerPoint bullet-point fest for leaders followed by a so-called ‘cascade’ of key messages? (I say “traditional” although the tradition in most organisations is to not even bother explaining the vision and strategy to staff – the very people who are supposed to make it happen. Always baffled me that one.)

The reason for using a visual approach is that, as research tells us, most people think in pictures. What we’re doing is mirroring their preferred method of taking in information. Also, pictures work internationally and across language barriers, and make no assumptions about people’s literacy level.

The power of metaphor

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Well, I think a visual metaphor is worth a thousand pictures. Over the years, we’ve helped our clients use metaphors – executed visually – to explain their visions and strategies in a way that both makes sense and inspires. Together with our clients, we’ve climbed mountains, sailed the seas, built a city, even flown to distant galaxies.

Get the metaphor right and you’ll create a common reference point and language that colleagues everywhere will use to talk about the vision. For example, with a construction metaphor: “Is what we’re doing today as a team building on the foundations of our success?” and “Are we deviating from the blueprint?”

If you then use the visual metaphor to trigger storytelling in your organisation, you’ve created a super-channel for your vision and strategy to spread like wildfire. (The addition of storytelling techniques also hooks in people who like to get their information orally and through feelings. In fact, if you write your communication in a way that stimulates all of the senses, you’ve pretty much got the entire human race covered!)

Developing Big Picture communication

But before you reach for the kids’ colouring pencils and start doodling, a few words of warning.

Be super-clear about what it is you’re trying to illustrate through the metaphor otherwise all you’ll end up with is a pretty picture that’s as useful as a chocolate teapot. We have a strict rule: No drawing allowed until you’ve got your messages straight. This can be done effectively by writing a key message manifesto. It would cover where we’ve come from, where we are today, where we need to be, how we’re going to get there, what the competition are up to, what our customers are demanding, etc.

Even then, you may not be the right person to come up with a resonant metaphor. For example, for those people in your organisation based in land-locked Switzerland, a sailing analogy might not appeal. Consider forming a sounding board, a small group of employees who represent the main communities in your business. They’ll help you make your metaphor as ‘cynic proof’ as possible and create messages that are meaningful and accessible to their peers.

Communicating the Big Picture

The visual image itself can be conveyed in all kinds of styles from hand-drawn caricatures to photo-realistic computer generated images to 3-D experiences. It can be delivered through large-format posters, online or on video.

What really matters is how you bring the picture to life in a local context. On that note, we’ve found over the years that it’s vital to invest in training leaders and managers on how to use the Big Picture to tell the story, spark dialogue and generate local action plans. When all is said and done, a big picture is a tool, albeit a powerful one. To fully exploit its potential, it needs to be used with skill in the context of good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction.

Once you’ve launched the Big Picture communication, you need to keep the key messages alive through existing channels such as performance reviews, town halls, newsletters, dedicated posters and the intranet. And you could add new channels, too – information screens, social media, a regular podcast, displays in public spaces, perhaps even a competition… As part of a Big Picture project for Mölnlycke Surgical, we got employees to shoot short videos on their smartphones to report back on how they were bringing the strategy to life in their part of the business – with prizes for the best entries.

In this way, a robust metaphor can carry on working for up to five years, etching clear, consistent and compelling messages in the minds of colleagues.

Proof points

But don’t just take my word for it. The statistics from independent research as well as surveys carried out by our clients prove that this is a technique that works. If you want to inspire the entire organisation to achieve your vision, then it’s crystal clear that you need to paint the big picture of communication – and help your people see how they can contribute.

Axiom’s Big Picture communication approach to convey vision, strategy and change