On being … underlying assumptions

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying “a picture is worth a 1,000 words”. It’s a catchy adage that many embrace. I imagine there are a number of reasons it’s so popular. First off, the saying kind of paints a picture itself, albeit with words!

I also think it resonates with folks because most people probably have a catalogue of images they can bring into their mind’s eye quite quickly. Images of beloved persons, memorable events and sometimes even horrible incidents (think of the collapsing World Trade Center towers). Many memories are easier to conjure an image of than to describe.

Anyway, the idea of using pictures to explain things comes up a lot in business communications – my line of work. I’m all for using graphs, diagrams, and art work to help express ideas in a document because many folks are visual learners. I urge people to use both pictures and words in their business communications – that way you’ve covered most people you may be trying to reach.

Mind you, I’d never recommend just a diagram without a written explanation. Why? Because some people aren’t visual learners. I know because I’m in that category. I get so little out of most diagrams, I usually just skip them. I’ve taught lots of business writing classes and when I say that, there’s almost always an audible gasp from somewhere in the room. But it’s true – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who ignores them.

I had an interesting exchange with a work colleague this week. We were discussing how a process worked. Neither of us were experts in it, but we both had some experience with it. I started to explain my understanding. Mid-explanation he interrupted me. He reached for a piece of paper and with a bit of a patronizing tone said, “You’ve heard the saying 'A picture’s worth a 1000 words'?” I nodded. “Here, so let me show you”, he then said. He proceeded to make a diagram explaining the process to me – or at least his understanding of it.

I watched him as he made his sketch. I understood what he was getting at – not because the diagram made great sense to me – but because I followed what he was saying. I disagreed with his interpretation, but I waited till he was done. I then explained I thought his underlying assumption wasn’t necessarily valid and I pointed to the general area in the diagram that was based on the faulty assumption.

He sat and thought about it a moment and said, “Oh, I see…I see…” (Clearly a visual learner – even his word choice related to the visual.) A couple seconds later he somewhat grudgingly added, “Actually, you’re right!” Actually? I decried. Gosh, glad I could persuade you … now, can you seem a little less surprised that I understand the process? I didn’t say that last part, but I wanted to because he was clearly taken aback by my calling him out on his seeming surprise that my analysis could be correct.

The look on his face said he got that I didn’t appreciate the “actually” part. To his credit, he hesitatingly said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way”. I accepted his apology, but before we parted company, I pointed to the diagram. I told him that, despite the old adage, for some of us a picture isn’t worth a thousand words – it’s just a picture. So, I suggested that next time he decides to “show” someone what he means using a diagram, he shouldn’t assume they’ll get it by seeing it.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


Post a Comment

<< Home