Earlier this year, Visual Congruence was thrilled to collaborate with Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. Shel is an immensely popular speaker and leading voice on the application of technology in employee communication. I connected with Shel as he was preparing to roll out his New Model for Employee Communication to a large audience at the IABC World Conference on June 14.
Many prospective clients ask, "How do I work with you?" Here's the short answer: in most cases, I nail down details of what is needed through several short conversations and a review of any "raw material" (documents, slide decks, and the like). More often than not, I work with people I may never meet in person.
Shel graciously allowed me to share the back-and-forth that led to the visual enhancement and presentation of his new model (which itself evolved as we worked together). My hope is that this "as-it-happened" case study will help better answer the "How do I work with you?" question.
On March 17, Shel wrote: "Hey, Brian, I'm working on a presentation, with a new model for employee communications, that I'll present at the IABC World Conference in June. I'm NOT a visual design guy, though I've been trying to express what I'm talking about in a graphic. There are still some concepts I've been unable to incorporate and what I have, frankly, looks awful. Interested in helping me improve it?"
Of course, I was interested. Shel explained that he would be presenting for one hour, and that he'd likely need around 25 slides. He kicked things off by sending me his draft model:
The next day, I sent Shel a starting point for his reaction, and explained I would add text and subtle animations on subsequent slides. Here's what I sent:
Shel wrote back, "I like it! I'm still struggling to convey that everything is two-way in the model. Any thoughts on how to visualize that?" I soon came back with this:
Shel liked the refinements to the graphic, and agreed I could start playing around with builds and breakouts of that model, in slide form. The first rough draft looked like this:
Shel responded, "This looks great!" He added that he would have to be able to control the build so he could talk about each element. Soon thereafter, I sent him a more "finessed" version. These are just a few of the in-progress slides:
Shel responded by saying these were "fantastic," which was music to my ears. He then accepted my offer to provide a handout version of the new model.
A couple of weeks later, Shel sent me a number of additional slides he would be using in the presentation, with a request that I dress them up to be consistent with the slides related to the model.
Here are a few samples of the reworked slides I sent back to Shel:
A couple of weeks passed, and Shel added a few more slides to the deck, and asked that I "work my magic" on them. Here's what Shel sent:
And this is what I sent back:
On June 14, Shel rolled out his new model to a large and eager audience at the IABC World Conference.
The story ends there, right? Nope.
Two days later, Shel wrote, "I got some great feedback on the model itself that leads me to believe I need to add a fifth element to the ring around the model: Alignment. How big a deal would that be?" I got back to work, and came up with this:
A couple more days passed, and Shel wrote again: "So, a number of people have asked me, 'Where's measurement?' in the model. I had considered measurement as a model element; besides, I'm a measurement geek. Ultimately, I decided measurement is EVERYWHERE in the model. How might we add measurement in a way that shows it's everywhere? It wouldn't be a sixth ring, because you have to measure each segment of outer ring, too. Just pondering..."
This led to the next--and now final--iteration:
Below is a link to a quick video (YouTube) with a few samples of visuals, animations and transitions from Shel's presentation:
A not-insignificant portion of my work over the years has come from close relationships nurtured through almost two decades in the trenches of HR consulting. No longer quite an insider, I often toil today behind the scenes, a "consultant to consultants," advising former colleagues on how best to communicate visually with their own clients--and, ultimately, with those clients' employees. Many of those influenced and informed by my work never know I breathe the same air. Thankfully, I don't sport a monstrous ego--life and experience whipped most youthful cockiness from me--so I'm content being anonymous but effective.
In truth, it remains something of a wonder, even to me, that I've found myself focusing on information design for more than 15 years. I didn't study graphic design in college, except for a couple of classes on page layout--all executed with paper, scissors and glue sticks. After I graduated from a public relations program, nobody hired me to create educational maps or infographics; the bulk of my early career centered around conceiving employee communication strategies, and writing--lots and lots of writing.
This experience, I believe, richly informs most every graphic I develop for a client today.
Through the years, I picked up design skills here and there--working on one of the earliest desktop publishing platforms, and creating slides using an expensive and quirky apparatus that captured photos (on film) of what was on the screen. However, any visuals I created were influenced less by my desire to create something beautiful than by the expectation the "look and feel" remain secondary to my communication consulting and writing. Strangely, as my career evolved into something quite different--where the visualization became my calling card--my background in non-design-related work became even more important.
Which brings us to the present.
The Blueprint for Sustainable Performance was borne from some very basic raw materials--(1) a brief telephone conversation, and (2) a stack comprised of disparate slide decks and copies of email strings. The consulting firm for whom I developed this "placemat" passed these over with a simple direction: "See what you can make of this."
I took their starting points, did a ton of online research, and whipped up this map. Had I not learned, on the job, about HR and employee communication practices decades ago, I doubt I'd have been able to interpret and shape the key messages. Had I not written and edited so many benefit brochures, newsletters and video scripts back in the day, I question how effectively I might balance the images with words.
My strongest designs, I believe, emerge from years of experience that had little to do with design. This intentional foundation helped lead me, over time, to this most happy accident.
P.S. Please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to share your thoughts, pick my brain about your needs, or to ask for a full-size PDF of the blueprint. I look forward to hearing from you.
1. Stir up those brave new worlds.
Sketch dreams of tomorrows the audience feels possessed to create and nurture. Vivid characters, action, tone and pacing—woven with prose, photographs, infographics and the like—liberate messages from the quicksand of blah-blah-blech and make them vital elements of a mind-and-heart-stirring celebration of, “Yes…this…THIS is what I want.”
2. Marry your images to equally visual language.
On your visual canvas, strive to paint a clear, compelling path; any words you add should motivate and guide, not toss up roadblocks and sinkholes. To stamp your message into viewers’ memories, marry eye-snaring imagery with captions, call-outs and labels that stimulate both the senses and emotions. Instead of droning, “Information about covered benefits, along with directions on enrollment, can be found on our corporate intranet under the tab, ‘Sure to Make You Snooze,’” body-check the reader out of her stupor: “Explore. Expand. Act. Select and shape your employment rewards on PeopleZone now!”
3. Become a lean, mean, action-driving machine.
Be ruthless—pare each story to the sparest mix of active-voice words and pictures. Each element must inform, guide and propel viewers toward a desired destination. For example, nudge and steer employees, step by step, through benefit enrollment, as though “assembling” a package. Nothing should serve only to fill space; no piece should add noise. Everything should get the person from point A, to point B, and via the shortest route possible.
4. Connect with fellow flawed-but-hopeful souls.
Odds are you share a species with most readers. Act like it. Liberate your company’s lore and dreams in a warts-and-freckles way and—surprise, surprise—you may happen upon another human or three inclined to warm to you and your message. Don’t be gloom-and-doom. Don’t be a polyanna. Just stay refreshingly, unabashedly and gloriously real.
5. Stand apart.
The world barrages your audience with stimuli—many of which sparkle and drip with star power and production mastery your corporate toolkit (and budget) can’t begin to touch. Your strongest chance to compete comes from offering the unique—an insight that reinvents a career; a hint that inspires a solution to a lingering nuisance; the trigger for an “a-ha” revolution. Relish and replicate your B-movie moments of magic.
is Chief Solutions Architect for Visual Congruence's clients. A 30-year veteran of corporate communications, Brian spent much of his early career in senior leadership positions with large HR consulting firms. He founded Visual Congruence in 2003.