Imagine a winding road on a dark night in a foreign country. You're in a borrowed car with squishy steering, dim headlights and questionable brakes. You try to drive carefully, but you have to get down the mountain in time to save the damsel in distress, stop the bank from foreclosing or tell him how you really feel before he departs forever.
The roadside has many signs, indicating the angle of the curves ahead, warning about deer crossing, communicating the speed limit. But your headlights are so dim, and your eyes are so focused on the pavement, that you barely see the signs. Suddenly an especially large one looms ahead: it shows a picture of a bridge with a large red slash through it. There are some words, too, but you don't speak the language. Your distracted brain suddenly engages, and you think, "Bridge out?" Rounding a turn, you hit the brakes and screech to a stop, inches from a precipice where the bridge used to be.
Saved by a visual.
(Don't worry: You get down the mountain in time. A farmer with a mule appears, or an old friend just happens by in his helicopter, or you discover an old dirt road. You make it. You rescue the damsel. The foreclosure is stopped. He agrees not to leave. You all live happily ever after.)
Here's the point: Whether your audience is racing down a mountain or sitting at their computer, they're so overwhelmed by content that mere words won't get their attention. You need to write less and use more visuals to effectively convey your message.
Visuals are a no-fail way to grab and hold people's attention. But you don't need to have artistic ability--or a graphic designer on retainer--to use visuals to turn boring narrative into compelling content.
1. Use typography to add visual interest. "Typography" is the balance and interplay of text that helps readers understand, absorb and navigate content. Page after page of dense text makes it hard for readers to cut through the thicket. But when type is used well, there is a balance--among blocks of text, headlines or subheads, and the surrounding white space--that draws readers in.
For example, make headlines and subheads bold. These elements create navigation, indicating the hierarchy of your content. They act as starting cues indicating where sections begin and what the sections are about. Therefore, headlines and subheads should always be clearly visible. Try boldface, two or more point sizes bigger than your text.
2. Embrace eye-catching icons. Icons are so prevalent in our day-to-day lives that we often don't even notice them as communication. For example, we intrinsically recognize that when a door has an image of a figure wearing a dress, it communicates that on the other side is the woman's restroom.
Since one simple graphic demonstrates a concept that would take many words to explain, icons can be a particularly powerful communication tool.
3. Color it interesting. Today we expect to find color wherever we go--and unless you're going for a retro look, using only black and white seems so last week. Using color very sparingly can help draw attention to a particular message: In a sea of black and white, a red box would catch the eye. Designers often use a "burst" (splash of bright color in a box or star shape) with type to let readers know something important: "Offer expires June 1" or "One-day only sale."
Since certain colors are associated with certain concepts, using color appropriately serves as a kind of shorthand. Red means "stop," yellow "caution," green "go"--so you can color-code your communication accordingly.
Using visuals helps you convey your message at a glance, capturing in a single image what would take a thousand words to describe. Don't worry that you have to draw to use visuals--using typography and color counts, too. Remember to keep it simple. The whole idea is to make it quick and easy for your audience to grasp what you're trying to get across.