Expression - Presentations

Imagine: The Power of Mental Images

Where were the slides?

Where were the slides?

Today being Martin Luther King day, I’ve been thinking about the incredible power of visuals in speeches—but not the pre-packaged kind you get with slides. King’s Dream speech worked so well for many reasons, but one of the most important was his ability to seize the audience’s imagination through mental imagery. He didn’t need a big screen set up on the white marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial to get us to picture scenes of black and white children playing together “on the red hills of Georgia”, or to imagine freedom ringing from “every hill and molehill of Mississippi”.

All he had was words, and words were more than enough.

Technology adds so much to our capabilities that we sometimes forget what we give up in return. I wonder if PowerPoint has sapped our power to evoke mental images through words, and if so, does it matter?

I do believe it matters, because mental images can be more persuasive than actual visuals. Actual visuals are good because they are processed instantaneously, and because everyone sees the same image[1], but these advantages may actually be disadvantages in terms of the persuasiveness of the image. Mental images can be more persuasive because they enhance memory, intention and emotion.

Memory: When someone is getting ready to decide or to act on your presentation, you want them to remember how they felt when the heard the presentation and the arguments for taking the recommended course of action. Because creating the image actually takes work, the effort of creating the image will get the listener more involved and engaged, and they are more likely to remember the image or have it pop up in their minds when they are getting ready to act on the information. That’s why all memory systems are based on mental images.

Intention: People are more likely to perform the actual behavior if they envision themselves doing it. One study that tested actual consumers’ sign-up rates for cable service found that those who were asked to imagine having cable service were more than twice as likely to sign up than those who just got a description of product features.[2] The impact of imagination on actual performance is well-known by athletes who use routinely use mental imagery to gain an edge.

Emotion: When you use words to evoke an image in the listener’s mind, each listener sees their own personal version. Because it’s theirs, it can be more real and more meaningful—hence more persuasive. Even better, when you can get them to picture themselves in the image, it tends to increase the likelihood of the behavioral change.[3]

How to create mental pictures

Make it a priority. You’re already spending a lot of time trying to find the right visual for your slide presentation. Why not spend some of that time figuring out how to generate the virtual image in their minds? You don’t have to give up slides, but try a little harder to use them less.

Use concrete words, vivid details, and analogies. Familiar objects are easier to picture and remember, especially when they’re vivid and dramatic vivid they are.

Make them the hero of their stories. Stories are powerful image creators, and they are even more powerful when you make the listener the hero.

Give them time. If you take the time and trouble to get your listeners to create a mental picture, don’t erase it immediately by immediately launching into facts and figures. Pause long enough to let it sink in and work its magic.


Imagine this scene: Dr. King sets up on the National Mall—and delivers a PowerPoint presentation! Would we remember his words today?


[1] Which is why mental images are NOT recommended when clarity or precise understanding is called for.

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