How much of the project communications you produce are written? I’d hazard a guess to say most of it. From emails to status reports, town hall presentations to slide decks for team webinars, most of what we churn out as project managers involves a lot of words.
Icons are like words… in picture form! If you look at a document and feel that if you could only just do something to make it come to life, then you’ll probably be glad to know that icons can do exactly that. And in a more grown-up, professional way than by adding emoticons to your materials.
Icons are great because they are small, flexible and freely available. You don’t have to commission special imagery. They work with every set of brand guidelines. And you don’t have to be a graphic designer to add them to your project communications.
Here are seven ways in which you can use icons on your project to elevate the way you communicate with stakeholders.
1. Make your reports more interesting. Are people reading your project status reports? Possibly not enough in enough detail. Think about how icons could help you get the same message across but faster and more interestingly. For example, even something simple like the letter R in a red circle can really make your project status pop far beyond what the word “red” (in black text) could do.
2. Improve your presentations. Too often, corporate presentations are slides with single sentences or bullet points. We are seeing a shift toward better, more visually interesting slide decks, but the change is slow. You only have to browse Slideshare to see a huge discrepancy by some of the slides uploaded from professional brand agencies and the slides that are uploaded after someone did a presentation at their local professional dinner meeting.
While the content is arguably important, these days we have to consider how it looks as well. Scattering in a few icons does a few things:
- It gives you the opportunity to standardize the look and feel of your slides, especially where you want to call out something.
- It helps your audience stay awake because they aren’t simply looking at text.
- It makes it more interesting for you to present.
Use an icon of a dartboard with a dart in the bulls-eye on a slide with your project’s objectives. An icon of a pen and a squiggly line can illustrate where you need approval for something. Think creatively and you’ll find there are lots of places where a strategic graphic can highlight a particular point.
3. Tell the story of your project. Icons don’t have to be used simply as fancy bullet points. A number of arrows can help show the direction of travel of your project. Group icons together to illustrate a team at work. Signpost progress with a photo of your project under construction with an icon of a camera in the corner.
Part of our role as project managers is to tell the story of our projects, share the vision and keep everyone on the same page. Pictures help you do that far more easily than the written word. If you have to do this kind of communication in writing, adding a few images and icons can make the world of difference.
4. Get information across faster. Icons are visual shortcuts. At the airport, you look for the picture of the stairs or a box with an arrow to signify which way is out. On a website, a picture of an envelope would represent “contact us.” In an email, a smiley emoticon would be a way of saying “that’s okay” or acknowledging a remark in a positive way. Icons are a bit more professional than emoticons, but they do broadly the same job—they save you from a block of text or a long verbal explanation.
There’s a universal language in iconography. We take in information visually faster than we can take in words, so a clear, easily understood icon can help your project stakeholders get the message more quickly. This is especially useful if you build up a collection of icons that you use time and time again.
5. Help your emails get read. A manager told me the other day that he thought senior leaders in his organization were missing important information in email because they were overloaded. Consequently, they were simply scanning through emails. Nothing jumped out, because the emails are all text.
Using icons is a way to set your emails apart from the others that your boss is getting, which might make them more likely to get noticed and acted upon. For example, use a calendar icon in your email to highlight an important date by which the readers have to take action, or an exclamation mark to draw attention to an issue that needs resolving.
6. Help people remember. Icons can act as shorthand if they are associated with a particular task or action. Say, for example, that you have a software project going live in a month. Between now and then you have to encourage all the staff members to create their own username and password. You’ve got a series of communications going out to prompt them to do so, a mix of emails, posters and a presentation that you’re making available for their team leaders to deliver locally.
The “ask” in all of these is the same: Set up your account now. Linking that to an icon will help promote recall. An icon of a head in a circle is often what represents a user, but you could use a key, a door with an arrow pointing to it or something else.
The actual icon itself isn’t hugely important as long as it represents the task you want people to do. The repetition is what matters: Each time they see the request to create their account, you’re using the same icon that ties together all the previous messages and prompts them to remember that they really should have done that by now.
7. Make your communications look more professional. Finally, using icons can elevate your communications to a level that makes them look more professional. Take a look at the websites of your competitors or suppliers: They most likely have icons on there. Look around you, or sift through the catalogs and snail mail you get: You’ll spot icons all over the place.
People are used to looking at information in this way. But the thing is, project managers aren’t communicating like this. You’ll look more professional and (hopefully) get better results from your project comms if you adopt techniques that are working other business areas like web design and marketing.
Where to Find Icons
Fontawesome.io has a huge range of open source icons (i.e. free, and suitable for commercial use). While it’s mainly designed for embedding icons into websites, you can use the icons on the desktop if you download the icon set and install it as a font. Then you can use the icons in your emails, newsletters, presentations and so on.
If that sounds a bit complicated, you can search within MS Word and PowerPoint for icons. Call up the Clip Art search menu (Insert/Clip Art) and type “icon” followed by the image you are looking for (e.g. “icon padlock”). The results can be more hit and miss, but if you keep trying, you’re likely to find something that would do the job.
There are dozens of websites offering icon sets for download, but be sure to check the terms of the license. You only want to use those that give you rights to use commercially and make sure that you are downloading from the original source. Always check the terms and make a note of where you downloaded the icons from.
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