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Why a Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words: Using the Power of Visualization to Achieve Your Goals

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Fresh off our New Year's celebrations, many of us chart a course for our personal and professional improvement. We reflect on where we have been and where we want to go. Change is a part of the beginning of a new year.

To make our plans "official," many of us write down our goals. In team meetings (and maybe even in family meetings), we make charts, tables and lists of what we want to accomplish in the year to come. This idea has been borne from previous research that has shown that writing down goals is a great way to maximize the possibility of their achievement.

However, we may want to add another element to our planning this year. Research suggests that adding a visual component to our goal-setting exercises may bring even stronger results.

In one 1996 study, a team of researchers from Michigan State University identified over 200 emergency room patients who had suffered from lacerations. Before being discharged, each of these individuals was handed instructions regarding how to care for their wounds at home. In an interesting twist, half of the patients received text-only instructions. The remaining individuals were provided the same text, along with visual depictions of what was required (i.e., cartoons that showed what was meant by the written descriptions).

The research team followed up with the patients three days later via telephone to see which individuals were more successful in terms of following their home-care plan. The results were fascinating.

People who were given the cartoons along with the text exhibited superior recall of the information than those in the text-only group. Specifically, while almost half (46 percent) of the people who received the cartoon-enhanced instructions were able to answer each of the wound-care questions correctly, only 6 percent in the text-only condition did so successfully. There were also 24 percent more people in the visual group who actually read the instructions.

Last but not least, individuals in the visually-enhanced group were 43 percent better in terms of their adherence to the instructions than the text-only crowd.

Implications
There are numerous takeaways from the above research. Although writing goals down is important, as it helps us focus our attention and determine a pathway for our efforts, adding a visual element certainly augments the chances of our success.

If you are leading a team (or family discussion) around goals this year, make sure you incorporate a visual element to the conversations. Within a work context, when discussing a new strategy or highlighting new expectations for customer engagement, think about how to create a visual representation of this new reality and include it with your text.

For example, taking the time to create a cartoon or other visual aid to demonstrate what these policies or behaviors look like in practice can help clarify the language and ensure everyone is on the same page.

You can also use posters to bring an element of fun or energy to the initiative. Several websites allow users to create their own motivational posters, uploading their own (or others') photos. This could be an individual -- or team-based activity -- that could maximize the benefits outlined in the research above.

Other organizations could also transmit new programs or policies through the utilization of skits or interactive role-plays. If there is a new customer experience or employee initiative taking place, these experiential opportunities can powerfully convey the why, how and what of the program, while making it easier for employees to recall.

Lastly, you could use a 'Vision Wall' to build your goals for 2014. For a team or organization, think about bringing everyone together and talk about what goals you have for yourselves in the coming year. Try to picture what these look like in real life. Identify different photos or illustrations that represent these ideas. Maybe some relate to client service standards. Perhaps others relate to financial goals for the team or how you want to work together as a unit. Regardless of the factors that constitute the 'vision wall,' go out and gather the corresponding images and post it in an area where everyone can be inspired. It is a great way to maximize alignment and engagement, while focusing on your priorities for the coming year.

Conclusion
While goal-setting is an important exercise, we may get distracted by focusing more on the analytical rather than the emotional part of the process. The above study demonstrates that bringing a visual component to goal-setting can significantly change our outcomes. So as you are writing down your goals for this year, make sure to include a visual to go along with it -- you could save yourself a thousand words and get even closer to achieving what you are setting out to accomplish.