When twenty-third century historians (if they ever get the opportunity to exist) spend time pondering some of the significant changes in our world in the late 20th and early 21st century, I suspect they will highlight the simple phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" to illustrate a fundamental shift in the way we as humans process and share information.
Think about what anthropologists refer to as the first era of communication - the age of oral transmission of ideas and information. Story was the primary tool at our disposal and so gifted orators were valued as agents of cultural change (think Plato all the way to radio). Then came Mr. Gutenberg and the advent of the mass printing press inaugurated a second era - the printed word. Now the ability to manipulate and control written language on a page was a skill for change and the dissemination of information (think newspapers as the primary source about what was happening in our world).
As a added bonus, have a look at the photo to the right... If you look super closely, you'll see that computer artist Manfred Schroeder took thousands of characters from numerous alphabets and arranged them so that this picture literally is a thousand words - clever, no?)
But the times have been a changin' so that some argue imagery has replaced literacy as the primary tool for understating and communicating with our world. "Many centuries after the shift from oral to written culture, we are now well along in the transition to visual culture—where the predominant mode of communication is images rather than words. Just as the shift to writing required the skills we call literacy, so visual culture requires its own skills—for lack of a better word, visualcy." (Andy Crouch, Christianity Today, June 2005).
So the question becomes: "How does a leader schooled mostly in the use of oral and written platforms (think about what you learned in school: how to speak publicly and how to write papers) make this critical transition?"
First of all, it is helpful to understand that while the visual is a powerful tool in a leader's arsenal, it is not their only recourse. Images can still benefit from explanation and good explanation can still benefit from images. There is a dynamic relationship that good leaders intuitively know and use to their advantage. They think about things like aesthetics: what is behind and around them when they speak? They think about how their stories can be supported by a key image. They think about how keeping an image in front of people can motivate them in ways that words can not.
As a great example, take my friend Dave, who is a pastor. He wanted to encourage his congregation around praying for their friends who have not come to faith in Christ. Sure, he could stand up and remind them every week about this (which he does well). Sure, he could tell compelling stories of people coming to faith (which he does). But Dave chose to use visualcy...
He placed a large chalk board at the front of their church and invited people to come forward and write the names of their friends there. There is a second chalk board over at the far right side of the church and when a person makes a movement to come to Christ, they take the name off of the board on the right and write it up on the board on the left (see how long that took me to explain it to you?! If you walked into their church and saw it you would know intuitively what it was for).
If you've been following the posts this week, I've suggested that Complexity, Narativity and now visualcy are three critical elements in any leader's arsenal of driving change. Now the question is yours - how do you use them well? (or 23rd century historians may say nasty things about you)!