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September 2, 2016

The Day I Learned to Think in Pictures

Andrew Heather

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Someone once asked me to create a presentation using pictures and just two words per slide. That moment would go on to influence my career in a number of surprising ways.

The challenge came as part of a presentation skills course. It helped me to realize that slides are often used as a crutch for the presenter. Most people, we learned, use far too many words in their slides. Attendees are unable to concentrate on what you're saying when they're trying to read them. You'll more likely frustrate the members of your audience than engage them.

Worst of all, you may be tempted to use your slides as a script. If you read from them with your back turned to the room, you're not fully engaging with your audience. My neck prickled with embarrassment when I realized that I had been guilty of exactly this mistake in the past.

You're better off, I heard, printing the slides and giving them to the audience as a handout. They'll be able to digest the information at their leisure. Even better, they won't have someone talking at them while they're trying to read!

So, the course trainer tasked me with making a conscious effort to present ideas, data and findings in pictures. I didn't have to say that sales were great if I showed a photo of store shelves picked clean. The audience chuckled before I could finish the sentence, anyway!

I then discovered that well-chosen pictures had the power to reveal nuances that the listener wouldn't have considered otherwise. The trainer told me, "If your slide is peanut butter, what you're saying should be jelly." One, she explained, should complement the other.

Once I had grasped the importance of capturing an idea in pictures, I realized how immediate it could be. I started to challenge myself to reduce the time between a slide appearing and the audience responding. The quicker the laugh or murmur of understanding, the more immediately I'd been able to reinforce the idea.

So why limit my newfound love of clear visuals to presentations? I started using pictures in other areas of my work. On one occasion, while working as a community manager, my boss asked me to write some copy that described my employer's product. It was a toy that helped young children to learn basic computer coding. I considered various paragraphs describing the "programming board" and "instruction bricks," but nothing I wrote seemed to make things clearer.

Eventually, I recommended that we go with an illustration of the item and its various components instead. And when he asked me to write a blog post describing how the product worked, I suggested that we create an interactive, software version of the toy and embed it in our web page. Parents would be able to see the product for themselves without leaving their browsers.

The larger lesson that I learned from that course was this: everyone in your team is pulling in the same direction, in pursuit of the same goal. There's no need to build a wall separating your copywriters, social media managers, and other "wordsmiths" from your video editors, illustrators and designers. Pictures strengthen copy and vice versa. When you encourage your teams to work together, each enhances the other's work, and your entire organization moves closer to its goal.

If you're interested in reading more on the topic of thinking and learning visually, take a look at this week's article on Flow Charts, and find out how they can help you to communicate and streamline your business practices.

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6 comments on “The Day I Learned to Think in Pictures”

  1. I too had a revelation about the ratio of pictures to words during a course to become an online training facilitator - and my presentations have never been the same since! Creating engaging presentations is one of the things I enjoy most. I hope lots of people read what you have written and think about what they can change in their presentations.

    1. Thanks Linda for sharing your experiences with creating engaging presentations by having more pictures than words! I know I certainly will be thinking of that when I'm next developing a training session.

    1. Glad you liked the blog post Sara. I loved it too and it is making me stretch my thinking for my next presentation.

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