Visual Selling

How to Use Visual Strategies to Communicate Solutions and Convince Your Customers

Guest article by Marko Hamel, founder of Visual Selling.

Back in 2007, I worked as a sales consultant for the software company SAP. While giving a pitch to a potential customer in Norway using standard PowerPoint, I realized that the customer didn’t understand the value of the solution. The PowerPoint slides had no meaning for him — the business examples were abstract and not part of his own reality.

I almost gave up, but suddenly an idea came to mind. Since the topic of the solution was Enterprise Risk Management, I asked the customer, “What is your biggest risk?”

He replied, “A big fire on an offshore oil platform.”

I started visualizing this risk live on the flipchart, and we discovered dependencies, possible trigger events, and mitigation activities. We drew the whole picture together. Finally, we mapped the big picture to the Risk Management solution I had in my pocket.

The customer was excited. He understood the competitive advantage of the solution, and he invested.

According to the research company EMPLAY and their Sales Impact Measurement Program 2016, visual selling shortens the overall sales cycle by up to 30% and increases sales by 20%.

Sales Cycle, visualized.

In 2013, my partner Miriam Hamel and I founded the company Visual Selling to support our clients in visualizing their customer dialogs, to facilitate all phases from discovery, to presenting, to closing. Once we identify the customer’s biggest problem and need, we use our client’s visual materials to come up with a solution and its value-added proposition, and map it to the customer’s problem.

However, in our trainings, we’ve found a giant issue. Many of our clients don’t know what the competitive advantage of their own solution or product is. If they don’t know the value of their own product, how should they convince a customer to invest in it? This usually leads to huge discounts and shrinking margins to compete on the market. We walk our clients through an intensive, visual competitive advantage discovery workshop, and solve this problem in one day.

Digital Challenges and Solutions

On our way to developing the perfect methodology for our visual customer dialog, we faced several challenges.

Still working for SAP in 2010, there was a need to perform more customer presentations in online meetings for bigger customer groups. Drawing on a sheet of paper would hardly be sufficient for these situations, but there was no iPad available and the graphic tablets without built-in displays were hard to use for a good graphic flow.

Our training team at SAP searched and found a solution called Papershow. It allowed us to draw analog on a sheet of paper with a printed dot matrix, while the pen with built-in camera digitized our strokes. Since it performed in real-time, we were able to share our visual discovery drawing directly with the customers in online meeting situations. This was a big step in going digital — but an even bigger one was the release of the iPad in 2011.

Visualize the value of innovations, products, and services.

When we began Visual Selling, we wanted to use a full digital workflow, and we drew with the first drawing apps available on the iPad. It worked, and it was fantastic to run meetings with just an iPad, a video conference system, and your brain in visual thinking + customer discovery + presentation mode. This was the beginning of an exciting journey. We taught people in sales and marketing how to ask a question, draw the answer, build connections, cluster, distill, and develop the big picture, even in virtual space. The more complex the client solution was, the more fun we had.

During this time, we created great ideas and visual concepts, and started to document our Visual Selling methodology as a foundation for the later Visual Selling book. But we wanted more. More accuracy, more possibilities for improvement to our methods. We mainly used bitmap-based sketching tools on the iPad to visualize our solutions. This proved to be a problem since our customers wanted to continue to work with the results of the workshop. They wanted us to add things to solutions we’d built, but couldn’t change afterwards. Photoshop became our friend in post-production.

In 2015, we finally found the iPad solution Concepts: Smarter Sketching. This discovery was a big change. From that moment on, we were able to sketch with vectors with the feeling of a bitmap-based tool. We could control and change any line. We were hooked.

Concepts enables meaningful conversations.

One of the features we appreciate most about the Concepts app is the infinite canvas. It is ideal for conversations and for facilitating workshops. Since the human brain uses complex neuronal connections, it produces ideas in a non-linear way. Concepts supports this visualization style and we can keep visual flow no matter where it goes. We can sketch, color and optimize… all digital, all live, together with the customer.

The automatic layering is a good example of its intuitive usage. It allows us to sketch and concentrate on the conversation without thinking about the tool. We can use the pencil to sketch, the pen to draw, and the fill tool to add shadows and color on separate layers without having to interrupt our drawing flow. The app takes care of it.

Concepts helps us to spread the idea that live visual communication can be performed easily, and guarantees great results in any workshop or meeting situation. It doesn’t matter whether it is on-site, online, or on the big stage in front of a large audience.

Communication Starts with Listening, Not Talking

We often see people describing how communication behaviors in the working world are changing… there are open spaces, coffee corners, walls full of sticky notes. But one essential thing has not yet changed. People talk, but they do not interact with each other or the audience. I call it broadcasting a message instead of communication.

I believe that if you want to transform the way we work and communicate, we need to start with listening. An excellent way to achieve this in our visual world is with interactive, visual communication.

Visual conversations create an effective dialog.

We do this on stage for large events and call it “Digital & Visual Event Facilitation.” In these sessions it’s not just a panel discussion anymore, it’s an interactive exchange of verbal and visual information. If a speaker on the panel brings up a new term or thesis, we make it visible on the big screen using our iPad with Concepts.

Visual Event Facilitation on stage using Concepts.

The moderator is able to address his questions to the members of the panel discussion while referring to the created visuals. This activates everyone — on stage and in the audience. People experience statements a second time. The overall conversation is more comprehensive and follows a clear structure. In addition, things are discussed from many different perspectives due to the ongoing live visualization. It’s a very dynamic process with great results.

An example of a visually facilitated discussion.

To change the working world, we need more people who listen, think, ask and adapt. Communication and decision-making processes are not a one-way street. To engage people and to help them feel responsible in fulfilling a bigger task, they need a clear picture of the why, the what, and the how, like Simon Sinek describes in his model of the Golden Circle. He realized that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the why behind it. This is the core of the model. Only after this is clear, is the world interested in the outer layers and subsequent information — what they’re doing and how they will realize it.

If you are not a solo entrepreneur, you have to drive the change on a bigger scale. A communication approach combining listening, thinking, asking, and adapting via visual sketching is key for the overall success. The use of digital tools like Concepts speeds the process to light speed, and we can spread the ideas easily to 100, 500, or 1000 people at a time, even in a virtual space.

Live Presentation Tools and Setup

Basically, we use live visualization in two contexts:

  1. We facilitate a discussion on stage to identify core statements, ask for clarification, and bring in a new visual, structured perspective on the topic. The interactive discussion is engaging, and produces clear results on the big screen.
  2. We deliver a speech and tell a story while sketching the main points of the story digitally on the iPad. The audience listens and sees the visual anchors on the big screen. The beauty is, the people can remember and retell everything with ease.
Visual presentation of project management tools in marketing.

With our digital tools, we don’t need pens or a Graphic Wall — we’re flexible and can travel lightweight. We have the following tools in our travel bags:

  • Apple iPad Pro 12.9” + Apple Pencil — we just love it.
  • Concepts on the iPad Pro — the main tool within our digital process.
  • AppleTV — gives us the ability to move on stage without limitations.
  • HDMI Cable and adapter for VGA if required to connect us to the big screen.
  • Notebook + pencil — for the hidden quick ideas and notes.
Bringing Concepts to the big screen.

We use a 12.9” iPad Pro connected to an AppleTV using AirPlay mirroring. The AppleTV is hidden and connected to the big digital screen wall on the stage via an HDMI cable. The AppleTV provides a local wireless network, which means we can move on stage, talk to the members of the panel discussion, and turn towards the audience. Everything we visualize on the iPad in Concepts is visible in a large format. That is live visualization at its best!

Live visualization on stage with the iPad.

Before we enter the stage, we do some preliminary work to plan the facilitation job. We need to find out the individual’s goals and schedule, and define the visual frame like color code, logos, and which visual language we will use. We schedule an online visual meeting four weeks before the event takes place.

Here, we sketch with the customer all the important points. To get the full picture, we use our Visual Selling Sales Punch model, a model we invented as part of our journey to allow an effective and meaningful customer dialog. We visualize every phase of the Punch to identify the main desires of the customer and the core problem.

The Visual Selling Sales Punch for visual discovery meetings.

In this initial visual discovery meeting, we use the web conferencing solution Zoom.us. It has great video support and a built-in AirPlay receiver. We see each other, and even more helpfully, it allows us to share the iPad screen directly. This means we can visualize together with the client on the iPad, and the complete sketching process is visible. We can discuss and visualize in real-time.

Zoom meeting with Concepts.

For some customers with high confidentiality rules, we must use the web conferencing solution they have in place. In this case, we use the software Reflector on our PC/Mac to receive the iPad screen in a window via AirPlay. This can then be easily shared in any other web-conference solution. A less convenient tool, but it also works well.

Visual Sketching Techniques with Concepts

Once these preliminary measures are in place, we prepare by setting up our digital workspace in Concepts. Our goal when drawing is to be fast like a rocket, so we set up our space like this:

  1. Create a new project as a container for all the work you do with this customer.
  2. Create a separate, new drawing as a template for all future drawings with the customer.
  3. Set your canvas to your ideal size for the workflow.
  4. Have Automatic Layering ready to go.
  5. Pre-define your favorite tools and colors to match your customer’s visualization needs.

In the following visualization, I drew the sales funnel model to show our best practice tool settings for live visualizations with Concepts.

Our favorite Concepts tool settings. Try it.

I invite you to re-create the funnel yourself after defining the following settings within Concepts:

  • Selecting — SELECTION tool to select, move and copy quickly.
  • Outlining — FOUNTAIN PEN: color = black, size = 1.0px, opacity = 100%.
  • Coloring — FILLED STROKE: opacity = 70%.
  • Shadowing — 2nd FILLED STROKE: color = black, opacity = 20%.
  • Writing — PEN: color = black: size = 1.5px, opacity = 100%,
  • Highlighting — MARKER: size = 15.0px, opacity = 50%:
  • Structuring — 2nd FOUNTAIN PEN: color = N2, neutral grey: size = 1.0 px, opacity = 100%.

Now you can easily visualize the main ideas using the FOUNTAIN PEN.

You can add color with the FILLED STROKE tool. Since the fill is semi-transparent, add darker shades of the color by filling the sketched object a second or third time. This makes it easy to add inner shadows.

With the 2nd FILLED STROKE tool, you can add outer shadows under or beside the sketched objects.

The PEN is perfect for quick writing, with good flow using various colors.

And last but not least, use the 2nd FOUNTAIN PEN for adding structure to the content. You can add arrows, connectors and boxes, create clusters, and give meaning. The neutral grey shade ensures a clean appearance among colors.

I also highly recommend using Automatic Mode for layering. This way you don’t have to switch between layers while you’re working live — everything is structured and ready for post-production after the event. Additionally, you can easily change the image later without needing to worry about layers.

Result of a visual customer workshop.

With these preparations in place, we are ready to step on stage and sketch live with our audience. At the end, we will have an ideal, personal solution visualized for our customer.


Marko Hamel and Miriam Hamel are the founders of the visual strategy facilitation company Visual Selling and authors of the book Visual Selling: The Workbook for Visualizing Live in Customer Meetings. Their goal is to revolutionize the way companies communicate with clients, partners and employees using digital tools and live visualization. In their visual facilitation workshops, they discover competitive advantage, and give their clients visual methods to conceptualize, present and sell their innovative ideas, products, and services.

Marko and Miriam are busy developing an international, free community platform for Digital Visual Selling, to share best practices, tools and templates. It will be available on http://community.visualselling.de by Q1/2018.

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Interview by Erica Christensen — Director of Community at TopHatch