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Communicating effectively
Tips on effective communication, including visualising ideas, writing, speaking & storytelling.

From Complex to Coherent: How I unified three ideas under a single, clear and memorable visual metaphor

Jun Han Chin

Jun Han Chin

The Visual Storyteller | I explain complex ideas with simple pictures and stories.

In this case study, you’ll see how I helped Clarence Foo create a cohesive metaphor that threads through three interconnected scenarios. This unified approach makes his complex ideas more coherent and easier for his audience to understand and remember. You’ll also see my visual thinking process and some techniques you can use to enhance your communication.

Who is Clarence Foo?

Clarence Foois a realtor to corporate leaders, business owners and senior professionals. He is a Senior Associate Division Director at PropNex Realty. Clarence works with investors, property owners and families to help them make the right time & financial decisions.

Clarence’s goal

Clarence is invested in the success of his team. He leads a growing team in Propnex, with many of his associates having strong corporate experience. He runs a sales training programme that teaches a reliable and replicable system for success so that his experience can be a shortcut and a step up for junior realtors.

To make sure that his team gets the most out of his programme, Clarence always prefaces his training with his principles.

Clarence’s principle to successful sales

The basis of Clarence’s system comes in three parts. As I listened to him in the classy common room of The Great Room at Raffles Arcade, I realised that Clarence’s thinking is clear, coherent and simple – but not easy to digest.

Here’s what Clarence told me (edited for brevity and your reading pleasure):

Real success comes from the ability to replicate your results. You shouldn’t be relying on luck. Succeeding once doesn’t mean you’re good. If you’re unable to identify the steps to success and replicate that success, you’ll find yourself in a feast-and-famine cycle. You can’t rely on luck to have a successful career. You need a replicable and reliable system for success.

But having a system doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results. You can’t copy and paste and expect the same outcomes. It’s like the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system in Singapore. It works really well. But when Malaysia tried to copy the road tax system wholesale, it didn’t work. Just because something worked doesn’t mean it will work for you. You can’t plug-and-play a system and expect to get the same success every single time.

Having a system alone won’t guarantee success. You need to adapt the system to your needs and circumstances. You need to customise it to your preference. It’s like your phone’s operating system. Most people use the phone as it is, out of the box. Some people complain when things don’t work out. But actually, if you actually get into the system settings, you’re able to make the adjustments you need to get the results you want. So having a system is the first step. You need to be willing to put in the effort and adjust accordingly.

What’s the challenge?

The challenge with thinking with words, what I call “verbal thinking”, is that ideas flow from one to another.

Clarence’s single idea ‘systems are important for success’ encompasses three interlinked principles:

  1. You need a replicable and reliable system for success.
  2. You can’t plug-and-play a system and expect to get the same success every single time.
  3. You need to adapt the system to your needs and circumstances.

Clarence’s examples make sense individually. He talked about the feast-and-famine cycle, Singapore’s Electronic Road Pricing system, and mobile phone operating systems settings.

But what happens when you string them together? It starts to become cognitively heavy. There has to be a more efficient way to get the message across in a way that’s easy on the mind.

The visuals

I developed a set of three visuals that explained the three interlinked concepts through a simple and intuitive metaphor. Here are the visuals before I break it down.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Behind the scenes: Critical thinking and visual thinking

Identifying the key concepts

Our ideas flow and blend together when we think with words. That’s one reason why sometimes it can be difficult to identify key ideas. What started as a seemingly single idea was actually three ideas weaved together.

The first step to simplifying this big concept was to separate the ideas into three parts.

When you’re explaining an idea with a single static image, you’ll begin to find distinctions between related ideas. It’s almost as if you’re trying to pause a video at the right time and frame the sub-idea.

Picturing the ideas

In his explanation, Clarence provided three analogies: feast-and-famine sales cycles, implementing road tax systems for traffic management, and the settings in our smart phones.

Could I illustrate each of these analogies? Absolutely.

But that’s not good enough. I wanted to find one analogy that can explain each of these ideas.

The inspiration

I was having lunch at a restaurant when the idea struck me.

At the bottom of the menu, there was a disclaimer: “The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’d be a miracle if the chef can bake a cupcake and have an exact replica of the shape and size.

That’s the second idea: “You can’t plug-and-play a system and expect to get the same success every single time.”

Does food have the potential to explain the first and third idea? Yes.

Imagine if you had to recreate the same cupcake without a standardised recipe and instructions. Imagine doing it by guesswork every time you want to bake a cupcake. You’re not going to have the same outcome.

To bake your cupcake successfully, you need a recipe book with the list of ingredients and step-by-step instructions. That explains the first idea: “You need a replicable and reliable system for success.”

And the third idea? “You need to adapt the system to your needs and circumstances.”

Suppose you have the recipe to bake vanilla cupcakes. It doesn’t take much to tweak the recipe to bake chocolate chip cupcakes, does it?

So there we have it – three distinct but related concepts united with an overarching analogy that most people can relate to, making it easy to explain and be understood.

Comments from Clarence

I asked Clarence for his thoughts, and here’s what he said.

How do you feel about this visual?

Junhan nailed it with this illustration! Most of us are familiar with recipes. Experimental baking for a family birthday is different from having to do it in scale & for different types of crowd. A recipe gives predictability. It increases the chances of success. Junhan has encapsulated the essence of a system by using the recipe idea.

What kind of reactions or responses have people given you for this visual or the set of visuals in general?

It makes ideas easier to understand. It’s like the old adage, a picture tells a thousand words.

Would you encourage people to consider using visuals?

Certainly! It not only helps the audience, many times I think it helps the communicator to clarify their thoughts further. It’s a reiterative process.

Would you encourage people to consider working with Junhan?

Junhan has the unique ability to transcribe ideas, which is harder than transcribing words. What he does can greatly elevate key concepts you want to bring across in a shorter amount of time.

Techniques you can use

Technique 1: What does this remind you of?

This is a simple question but perhaps the most used one in my entire time as a speaker, writer and illustrator.

There are so many abstract concepts. Take Clarence’s ideas for instance:

  • You need a replicable and reliable system for success.
  • You can’t plug-and-play a system and expect to get the same success every single time.
  • You need to adapt the system to your needs and circumstances.

As a leader and trainer, Clarence knows to use analogies that his team is familiar with.

To take it even further and elevate the impact of your message, you can look for tangible objectsto explain your ideas.

You don’t even need to draw them. If you can paint a picture in people’s minds, you’re going to be much more persuasive and memorable.

Technique 2: What’s a simpler substitute?

Earlier, I mentioned that I found the idea while looking at the lunch menu in a restaurant.

In reality, I wasn’t looking at cupcakes. I was looking at pasta.

Just about any food item was going to explain the ideas. But I chose cupcakes for several subtle reasons.

Cupcakes are easier to illustrate and easier to imagine. They are solid forms with less details than a plate of pasta.

When explaining ideas, one of my main goals is to make sure it’s as simple as possible.

Technique 3: Consider the feelings

For most people across the world, cupcakes are loosely associated with treats and happiness. There’s a positive emotional association to cupcakes that I want to carry over into the idea of attending a serious training. Outside of Clarence’s team, imagine an employee being sent unwillingly to attend a training programme. Any little effort to lift the mood would help.

Is there any basis to this?Yes.

  • Emotion researchsuggests that positive emotion may have a distinct effect on memory, and may lead to enhanced association-memory.
  • According to this article by ad agency UnrulyEQ, happiness is the most evoked emotion used in ads by brands and advertisers.

These points to the value of considering  emotions, be it in marketing, sales education or internal communications.

What’s next for you?

You’ve just seen how complex ideas can be simplified and made easier to understand and accept.

You’ve also seen that explaining ideas visually is more about thinking than drawing. It’s a key communication skill.

If you’re interested in how you can enhance the way you communicate ideas, here are two options to consider:

  1. Learn to illustrate impactful ideas in my 3-hour online course. You can easily go through all the content on any device, including your phone. It’s intentionally short so that you can get started ASAP.
  2. Work with medirectly to enhance your communications with visuals and stories.

You can reach me at junhan@tellvisualstories.com

Want to see more visuals and stories from me?

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