The powerfully illiterate – the other reason for visual content

January 14, 2016 2:13 am

Every day you see people writing about why visual content has become important. The crux seems to be that today we are bombarded with thousands of messages and that certain people, especially young people, aren’t inclined to do much reading. So think animations, gifs, Prezis, time-lapse video and infographics, we’re told.

Put aside the exact number of messages – ads or otherwise – that a modern, internet-using, TV-viewing, not-locked-up-in-their-bedroom person sees every day, where there is some variance in studies [link no longer available]. Let’s just agree the number is high.

Now consider whom this refers to. It’s easy for us to settle on the much-maligned Gen Z. After all, aren’t they the ones brought up with YouTube, Instagram and everything on-demand? They’re lazy, right? I’ll leave you to consider whether you see the latest generation entering the workforce that way.

Here’s an alternative: How about this applies just as much or more to those who are so busy or so powerful that they barely have time to read anything that isn’t essential? Or maybe they’ve grown flabby – they have someone else to do all their reading?

We come across this from time to time. Sometimes it’s the people at the top of large companies, inundated with demands on their time. We understand that. Though I’d also say we’re more often encouraged by how often very senior people engage in their organisations’ content programmes. I think they see the value and they bring a lot to the table. (Thank you!)

Other times it’s people with a blind spot. Last year we worked on one small website redesign project, providing a few pages of copywriting, and we’re not sure to this day if the client ever read the final copy. She engaged through the process but nothing has ever been used.

And this is common. Quite often we hear: “Our MD has to sign this off. But he doesn’t read, so we have to be careful how we pitch it to him.”
That’s not the same as “can’t read”. We’re not dealing with business leaders who are illiterate.

But what if we accept some people are ‘powerfully illiterate’, for want of a better expression? How would this change the way we communicate everything, not just our customer-facing content?

To partly illustrate this point consider this: Some years ago I had a new boss in a sizable company. We weren’t that big, but not small enough to move as fast as I’m used to doing now. In month one, every time I was told to submit a written plan, he handed back my proposals – at just four or five pages they were too long for him, he said. In month two, as I gave him some top line bullet points they too were given back to me. “Where’s the detail? Where’s the rigour?” he’d ask.

By month three I realised that every written document needed top line bullet points on page one, then the depth, including repetition on subsequent pages. That worked.

Maybe it’s slightly worse now. Maybe we’re beyond the bullet point stage. Do you work with someone who should always get a diagram or 15-second video instead of words? Perhaps it’s time for us to stop dismissing such people as lazy or uninterested and to start finding new and creative ways to give them the information they need, in a way that’s useful to them.


*photo credit: partial attention via photopin (license)
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