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Communicating Powerfully Without Words

Updated: Jan 6, 2019

This story is almost 30 years in the making.

On Sunday, January 14, 1990, Bill Watterson published a Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. Aside from the title panel with Watterson's name, there were absolutely no words – yet the comic gripped me so powerfully that it reached across the years to shape how I parent my children.

30 years later, I still have my Calvin & Hobbes collection.

The first few panels shows Calvin excitedly putting on his winter coat and hat while his father works feverishly at his desk, then Calvin asks his father to go outside with him. The next few panels show a range of emotion, as Calvin's dad seems to say that he needs to work, Calvin walks away dejectedly, then Calvin's dad peers out the window and gives his work an angry look. He gets up from his desk, and we subsequently see the joy he and Calvin express as his dad comes out to play in the snow and build snowmen with him. The final panel is Calvin's father, back at his desk at night, smiling as Calvin's mother holds Calvin up to kiss his dad on the head.

While I love Calvin & Hobbes for many reasons, this particular comic has stayed with me, sitting in the back of my head as I grew up from childhood and eventually became a father myself. And last weekend, the impact hit me hard when I was taking care of some work at home when my 5-year-old walked into my home office and asked me to come outside and play with him. I initially declined – but from 29 years in the past, this comic strip bubbled up in my brain, reminding me that I didn't want to be the absentee father whose children remembered him always working hard without making memories together. I told him to give me 5 minutes, and I went out into the backyard with him to play.

Think about all of the times you've seen a movie depicting a war scene, where the dialogue fades, the music swells, and you see people shouting and in pain and everything is in disarray. You know that the shouting is happening and that the characters are in pain and panicking, but you can't hear anything they're saying. The emotional impact is still conveyed – with blunt force – despite the lack of words. It's the same concept behind Instagram, an entire platform dedicated solely to communication via pictures and few (if not no) words.

As a communicator by trade and a reader for pleasure, I find words to be a powerful weapon in my professional arsenal. They can have great impact and create searing imagery in the mind. But it's things like this comic that remind me that a better communicator uses all the various means available to get the message across. Some people prefer to read words, others would rather watch pictures or video, others still would prefer to listen to audio. That's why every communicator's goal should be to ensure that the endgame of conveying a powerful message is complete.

Hi from Sam.

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