Missing Hallway Conversations

Cartoons? Are You Joking?

In nearly 14 years working with corporate management teams, I’ve continually heard this question in my client engagements when they’re looking at earlier Strategic Learning Maps® that we’ve created:  “Why a cartoon?  Why aren’t we using images of real people?”  Many corporate leaders ask this question because they’re worried that their strategy will be considered less real or taken too lightly or worse — is embodied as a joke.  Or maybe they have a deep concern that they must connect the look and feel of their learning materials to the look and feel of their brand.  There is some logic in that; however, I think the use of images and words (or cartoons) as a method for conveying strategy goes deeper.  And I think cartoons are simply misunderstood.

Before I answer the question, let’s first determine what a cartoon is not.

Cartoons Are All Around Us

A cartoon is not a funny book or television show created for the purpose of entertaining small children — though it can be.  Cartoons in many societies have been limited to such mediums, and subsequently have been defined by that notion.  But in other societies, cartoons have been and are still being used in many different ways.  It’s not uncommon in Japan to find a business professional reading a cartoon while traveling to work on a bus.  The Japanese also use cartoons in their education systems to help children learn.  The safety instruction manuals you find in the seat pockets on airplanes are cartoons.  Step into a place of worship, and along the walls you’ll find sequential images telling spiritual stories — cartoons!  Even movies are essentially a series of images and words put together so quickly that you forget you are watching cartoons.  So, in fact, we could deduce that life is merely a series of images and words that we take in and give meaning to.  We are hard-wired to see the world this way!  It’s how our brains process information.

Now, here’s what a cartoon does well.

First, a cartoon suspends the viewer’s disbelief.

The best way to describe this is through an example.  Take a photo of yourself picking something up, and then take a photo of the Empire State building and put it into your hands.  Both you and the Empire State Building are of equal size and proportion.  Would you believe it?  Do you think you could pick up the Empire State Building with your own two hands?  Of course not!  It simply isn’t possible.  Your brain knows that, and simply doesn’t believe what it’s seeing.  Now, imagine a drawing of a cartoon character picking up the Empire State Building.  What would your conclusions be about that image?  Would you be wondering about whether the action was possible or what the action was intended to communicate?  That’s the power of the cartoon.  You look beyond the obvious for the not so obvious.  You’d have no problem accepting that the character is truly picking up the Empire State Building.  Your mind is wide open to the possibility.  As far as you know, the character is Superman.  And we all know what that guy can do!  What has happened is that your mind and thoughts have been opened to other possibilities, your disbelief has been suspended.  How many of you were sad or even cried when Nemo’s mother was killed in Finding Nemo? I’d say you were believing that cartoon.

Second, a cartoon defuses sensitive topics.

The best examples are political cartoons.  A single image with a few words can make a profound point, often making even the attacked person or party laugh when they view it.  Wow!  Think about that.  Try to tell an adversary what you don’t like about their vantage point and expect them to laugh about it afterwards.  They won’t, and you’ll have created tension.  No wonder we all spend so much time choosing our words carefully so we don’t offend someone.

And last, cartoons are an extremely effective means of communication.

If done well, the viewer doesn’t even have to read a cartoon to understand the story.  In fact, some of the first forms of communication are cartoons (cave paintings).  Cartoons use images and words to tell stories.  Whether you learn best from the images or from the words or from both, you’ll get the message.

Cartoons are Effective Means of Communication

So, “Why a cartoon?”  A cartoon suspends disbelief, defuses sensitive topics, and is an effective means of communication.  What remains is pure potential – the potential to learn, the potential to align, the potential change, the potential to (you fill in the blank).  This is the reason we use cartoons and drawings to help employees easily understand a strategy, a marketplace condition, a new initiative, and then connect their own individual role to making that strategy a success.

To learn more about how and why cartoons work so effectively, I encourage you to read Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud.

November 16, 2011


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