Draw me a picture: Why books are becoming more visual

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When your satnav tells you your journey will take 58 minutes, are you one of those people who immediately things to themselves: ‘I bet I can bring it in in under 55.’?

I’m increasingly seeing ‘estimated reading time’ on blogs and articles these days, and I find that has a similar effect. ‘Six minutes? Rubbish. That’s 3 at the most.’

Which I do realise isn’t a very helpful attitude with which to approach either a journey or a piece of text.

But apart from tapping into our innate competitiveness, what purpose do estimated reading times serve?

Author and academic entrepreneur Heather McGowan, my guest in the Extraordinary Business Book Club last week, made the point tellingly:

If you looked at it in terms of newspapers, which is just an easy unit to understand, in the 1980s, we had the equivalent of about 40 newspapers coming at us every day. In 2008, it became 174 newspapers. In 2014, it became 280 newspapers, so we have this huge amount of content that’s coming at us every day. I think it’s giving us a fair amount of fatigue.’

There’s a famous Microsoft study on what technology is doing to our attention spans. From a frankly not wildly impressive 12 seconds in 2000, we are now down to 8 seconds, apparently. That’s just below goldfish standard (9 seconds, though how they measure this defeats me).

In one sense, books are the antidote to this frenetic grazing. In a book we can still lose track of time altogether – there’s space for deep thinking and complex issues, and the implicit contract with the reader is that they will devote their attention deeply enough and long enough to work through the chewy bits. I suspect this desire for deep diving in the face of relentless superficiality is one reason for the popularity of recent blockbusters like The Goldfinch and The Silk Roads.

But in another sense, books are just as caught up in this war for attention as any other textual content. So how do they compete in a world where people are making the decision on where to focus their attention based on a complex ROI calculation where value = benefit/processing time?

One solution, espoused by McGowan, is to start with visuals rather than text.

‘My starting process is: how would I put this on a single page so that people can understand it with very few words using shapes and different types of frameworks? I usually start with a series of frameworks that tell the story to me in my head and then after that I write… Visual processing speeds are much more quick and much more efficient. When you look at text, you turn those texts into symbols that you store in your mind visually. When you look at a picture, you can be 30,000 times faster reading all the same information that’s in a picture than in a narrative text.’

She estimates that while most business books take 6-9 hours to read, hers will be ‘consumed’ in 60-90 minutes, with better comprehension and retention.

We’re wired for pictures. Most of the information our brain processes is visual and we’re good at processing it really fast because we’ve been doing it for millions of years and our survival has historically depended upon it: reading is an evolutionary latecomer to the neurological party.

It’s exciting to see books like McGowan’s explore this more visual approach, marrying the power of visual commination with the depth and complexity of the book format. Projects such as David McCandless’s gorgeous Information is Beautiful and Dear Data, mesmerising data-visualisation postcards exchanged between Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, are showing what’s possible in this space.

Editors and writers are traditionally ‘word’ people – our challenge is to plug into the power of visualisation to create books that serves time-poor readers not only without sacrificing the beauty, creativity and depth of our stories and ideas, but enhancing them in the process.

Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com

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