Doodling for a decision?

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Written by Tim Riesterer on 26 August 2015

In my last blog, I dealt with the counterintuitive notion that change—even in the context of high stakes business-to-business deals—is an emotional and visual process rather than a rational or analytical one.

The main reason for this, as I noted, is that the region of the brain responsible for making decisions—sometimes called the “old brain”—doesn’t have the capacity for language. Instead, it depends on visual contrast to quickly resolve complexity.

In other words, if you want to tell a story that primes prospects to do something different, you’re going to have to do it visually.

There’s little doubt that great visual storytelling can make a difference in the selling arena. By my count, no fewer than 13 studies have validated something called the Picture Superiority Effect, which holds that people remember information six times better when it’s presented in pictures rather than words.  

The question is, what kinds of visual stories actually allow you to take full advantage of it? And, from a training standpoint, what can you do to ensure that your reps have the content and skills at their disposal to deliver a visual story that sets you apart and gets prospects to consider leaving their status quo?

These were the questions driving a recent study done by my company, Corporate Visions, in conjunction with Dr. Zakary Tormala, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The study was conducted online with participants who were randomly selected to watch a two-minute video description of a concept called “The Hammock,” each accompanied by one of three possible visuals:

  • Traditional PowerPoint with bullets and photography
  • Large metaphorical image with a few words (sometimes called a “Zen” presentation)
  • Whiteboard-style visuals

Tormala then conducted a follow-up study a few weeks later to determine the persuasive impact of each presentation and to confirm the legitimacy of the findings from the initial study. Both studies found a statistically significant difference in favour of the whiteboard approach in all categories measured—engagement, credibility, enjoyment, recall and persuasive impact.

The findings suggest that whiteboard-style visuals—not PowerPoint presentations—help you project the quality and uniqueness you need to make your message distinct and dislodge the status quo.

That’s not to say PowerPoint presentations can’t harness the simplicity and concreteness that are whiteboarding’s fortés. Here are some elements you can incorporate into your visual storytelling tools, regardless of presentation type, to give your customer conversations the visual edge they need:

  • Make the Pathway to Change Visual – Toppling a prospect’s status quo is never easy, but you can simplify it with sales enablement tools that give your reps a specific, visual choreography that leads prospects from a provocative insight to an alternative pathway forward. The sequence should look like this: Insight – Unsafe – New Safe – Proof Point. This allows prospects to visualize how their status quo situation leaves them vulnerable, and how your solution offers a “new safe” that can eliminate the gaps and deficiencies you’ve identified. Conclude with a proof point that testifies to a past instance in which you led a comparable company out of a similar predicament.


  • Make Practice a Discipline – Recent Corporate Visions research found that 85 per cent of companies believe their sales teams’ ability to articulate value messages is the single most critical factor to closing deals (for the record, most companies also believe sales conversations are the most important factor for creating differentiation). Why, then, do only 41 percent of companies ask salespeople to practice their messaging in stand-and-deliver or role-play scenarios? That disconnect represents a serious potential problem area, and only a rigorous practice program—where your reps practice delivering visual pitches in environments that resemble their conversations in the field—will correct it. To deliver dynamic visual stories, salespeople need to have their pitches recorded so they can receive coaching, feedback and certification from subject matter experts.


  • Cross the Conversion Gap: Deliver the “Why Change” story – So many companies falter in their sales presentations when they don’t carry over the provocative, “why change” message from their campaigns into their conversations in the field. This creates something I call the “conversion gap,” a gulf caused by inconsistencies between marketing and sales that leads to low conversion rates and lost leads. Great first sales conversations will aim to capitalise on campaign momentum, and they’ll do it by using visuals to amplify the urgency of the message that caused prospects to raise their hands in the first place. You can do this by defining the status quo, identifying its weaknesses, describing why change can address these weaknesses, then demonstrating the business impact of that change.

The elements of a compelling, disruptive visual story don’t only exist within the confines of the whiteboard presentation. But research indicates that that may be where your greatest selling advantages lie. So, if you’re looking to demonstrate visually why prospects should pursue a new path forward, it may be time to consider ditching the clicker, turning on the lights and picking up a marker.


About the author 

Tim Riesterer​ is the Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Corporate Visions