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Visual Aids in Business Documents

Visual literacy is the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text. Visual literacy is based on the idea that pictures can be “read” and that meaning can be communicated through a process of reading.

Visual aids assist the reader in understanding printed text and electronic text. Interpreting visual aids has become a most valuable skill for many occupations. This chapter focuses on how to interpret the following types of visual aids:
  • pictures
  • maps
  • cartoons
  • line graphs
  • bar graphs
  • pie charts
  • flow charts
  • diagrams
It also includes instruction in navigating a Web site.
Reading topics in this chapter comprise career choices, working conditions, employment, wages and benefits, and gender equity in the workplace. Exercises for interpreting the various types of visual aids are provided. Additional exercises include vocabulary and comprehension checks and activities for creating a variety of visual aids.
Visual Aids in Business Documents

Visual aids are important in business reports. They make reports more exciting and 
interesting to read. Visual aids can improve the professional quality and readability of business 
documents. The book Successful Writing at Work  lists these reasons for using graphics.

1. Visuals arouse reader immediate interest. Because many readers are visually oriented, 
visuals unlock doors of meaning. Readers who place great emphasis on visual thinking 
will pay special attention to the visuals. Visuals catch the reader’s eye quickly by setting 
important information apart and by giving them relief from looking at sentences and 
paragraphs. Because of their size, shape, color and arrangement, visuals are dramatic and 
maintain reader interest.
2. Visuals increase reader understanding by simplifying concepts. A visual shows ideas 
whereas a verbal description only tells them. Visuals are especially important and helpful 
if you have to explain a technical process to a nonspecialist audience. Moreover, visuals 
can simplify densely packed statistical data, making a complex set of numbers easier to 
comprehend. Visuals help readers see percentages, trends, comparisons and contrasts.

3. Visuals are especially important for non-native English speaking and multicultural 
audiences. Visuals speak a universal language and so can readily be understood. Because 
visuals pose fewer problems in interpretation, they can help reduce ambiguities and 

4. Visuals emphasize key relationships. Through their arrangement and form, visuals 
quickly show contrasts, similarities, growth rates, downward and upward movements and 
fluctuations in time, money and space. Pie and bar charts, for example, show 
relationships of parts to the whole, and an organizational chart can graphically display the 
hierarchy and departments of a company or agency.

5. Visuals condense and summarize a large quantity of information into a relatively 
small space. The saying, “A picture says a thousand words,” is true. Enormous amounts 
of statistical or financial data, over many weeks, months, and even years, can be 
incorporated concisely into one compact visual. A visual also results in streamlined 
messages by saving words. It can record data in far less space than it would take to 
describe these facts in words alone. 

6. Visuals are highly persuasive. Placed in appropriate sections of a document, visuals can 
capture the essence of ideas to convince a reader to buy our products or services or to 
accept our points of view. A visual can graphically display, explain, and reinforce the 
benefits and opportunities of plan we are advocating. Readers are far more likely to recall 
the visual than they might be a verbal description or summary of it.

Characteristics of Effective Visuals
Visual aids are useful when selected and presented correctly. Here are suggestions for choosing 
effective visuals.  
1.Using visuals only when they are relevant for our purpose an audience. A visual should 
contribute to the next, not be redundant. A visual must not simply be a decoration. A 
short report on secretarial procedures, for example, doesn’t need a picture of a secretary.
2.Considering how a specific visual will help readers. What the reader needs to know 
visually, what type of visual will best meet the readers’ needs, and how the visual can be 
created (scanned, imported, drawn) help us determine what will be included in visuals.
3.Using visuals in conjunction with, and not as a substitute for, written work. Visuals add
to – and not take the place of – clearly written words. A visual may need an explanation.
4.Helping the reader connect the visuals to the text. By indicating within the text exactly 
when the reader should look at the visual (usually by the statement “See Fig. 1”, for 
example), the visual has a greater impact on the reader. Readers should be told where 
visuals can be found (“below,” “on the following page,” “to the right,” “at the bottom of 
page 3.”)
5.Inserting Visuals Appropriately. Visuals are best when placed as close as possible to the 
first mention of them in the text and are most effective at either the top of bottom of a 
page. If the visual is small enough, it should be inserted directly in the text rather than on 
a separate page. 
6.Identifying and citing the sources of visuals. Professional visual aids have identifying 
elements within a caption (title) that indicated the subject or that explains what the visual 
illustrates. (e.g. Exhibit 1: Hotel Occupancy January – March 2000). A different typeface 
and size in the title makes the visuals stand out. Credit to sources of visuals is credited in 
a simple statement or in in-text citations.
7.Using high quality visuals. Visuals should be clear, easy to read, and relevant. Visuals 
that are of poor quality (too small, done in pencil, crooked lines) can actually create a 
poor impression of the report and upon us as professionals.

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