Did you know that you’re an incredible comic-book artist? It’s true, but here’s the deal: It only works when you collaborate.
Let me back up a step. In most comics, there’s a little bit of white space between the panels – this is called the “gutter.” You might not realize it, but, when you’re reading comics, the vast majority of the action takes place in this unassuming span of blankness. Check it out:
Here we seem to have a simple cause/effect relationship: a cat is being asked to run for president, and then, POW, there she is: America’s first feline Chief of State. But all of the hard work – the fundraising, the campaigning, the debates, Election Day – it all happened out of sight, between panels – in other words, in the gutter.
But to take it a step further: Were all sorts of microscopically tiny images embedded in that thin band of white to flesh out the story? Of course not. It actually took place in your mind. You were a willing collaborator in this election process. You, the reader, took two static images and wove a story to connect them. The story that you wove happened to be the shortest distance between two points, but it could actually have gone any number of different ways. Look what happens when we add a third panel:
The lessons for communicators could hardly be more valuable. Comics simply present an especially vivid reminder of a fact that can’t be overstated: The most effective communication enlists the audience as partners, carefully choosing the right pieces to create our own conclusions in our minds. When information is simply being handed to us, it becomes easy to tune out – but when we’re engaged by putting together the pieces ourselves, we have the potential to make the information our own – in a very real sense, we helped to create it.
And this observation is beginning to be borne out by science. A recent study cited by the New York Times concludes that reading literary fiction (i.e., more challenging than most airport fare) can help us gain empathy and social perception: “The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” In other words, if we fill in the blanks, we get more out of it – often skills and insights that can help us lead better lives.
So when you’re communicating, don’t be afraid to leave some blanks to fill in – the people you’re trying to reach can create an even more meaningful story in their own minds than if you gave them every last detail.
(One last note: Seek out the book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud – a treatise on comics created as a comic – which first introduced me to the concept of the gutter. It’s an incredible read for anyone, regardless of whether you already care about comics – I’ve read fewer books that so clearly and engagingly lay out the principles of communication through the lens of aesthetics.)
Jeff Lewonczyk is a member of Ketchum’s corporate communications team focusing on internal communications.