The Power of Visual Language

Regularly I get asked the question: “What do you think is the greatest speech ever given?” My answer: “I have a dream” by Martin Luther King. Here’s why.

When speaking to an audience it is very important you speak to that part of the brain which creates pictures. Being able to visualise what a person says is a superior way of disseminating information. It makes things easier to understand and remember. Not only that, it requires less energy.

Author David Rock in his excellent book “How the brain works” explains this process as follows: “Picturing a concept activates the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, at the back of the brain. This region can be activated through actual pictures, or through metaphors, and storytelling, anything that creates an image in mind.”

When speaking, think of yourself as someone who gives paint to his listeners so they can create a picture of what you say. Martin Luther King was a master at this. When he said “I have a dream” he essentially asked his audience “Can you imagine this?” Once you can imagine what he says, there’s no way  you are going to forget it.

One of the most vivid images Martin Luther King created was when he referred to his home state Alabama and wished it to “be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” The people who imagined that scene made sure it happened.

Dr. Martin Luther King used visual language in a beautiful and powerful way. “I have a dream” is therefore the best speech ever given.

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There’s Nothing To See, Look At Me

Morgan Spurlock is a funny man. He made the classic documentary “Supersize Me”, exposing the ill effects of the fastfood industry in America. He did this by eating McDonald’s for 1 month and “supersizing” his meal whenever he was asked by the server. It made him very ill. It also made him a celebrity.

Last year he was invited to speak at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design – the website is and he discussed his new movie, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which focuses on the world of advertising and media. He talked about funding a movie solely through product placements. He has a crack at the concept by turning his TED talk into The Greatest TED Talk Ever Sold. He finds out it’s a much tougher sell than he thought.

During the TED talk he does various interesting technical things you probably aren’t aware of but because he does them right you don’t notice them. The main three things: he introduces concepts first by talking about them and then showing them i.e. tell & show as opposed to show & tell; he uses a word “slide” but only lets people read as fast as he talks; and he uses black blanks.

The concept of Tell & Show is very powerful. Have a look at the clip. Spurlock mentions Ebay and then shows Ebay. Next he mentions Facebook and then shows Facebook. Finally he mentions Twitter and then shows Twitter. The video follows the audio. The audience immediately can verify they understand what was just said.

Next he uses a word slide that exactly follows what he says. The audience can’t read ahead of him and he exercises maximum control over the speed by which he disseminates the information. An audience can’t read and listen at the same time, unless it’s done the way Spurlock does in this clip.

Finally, he uses black blanks. At one stage you see that the screen behind him is dark. Spurlock is telling his audience “there’s nothing to see, look at me”. He understands the most important part about presenting is not the visuals but the person delivering the talk.

Make sure that you are the most important ingredient of any talk. You can do so by starting to use the techniques described above. I guarantee your presentations will greatly improve.

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The One Tip You Need Before You Speak

In the first week of December I visited Cambridge (UK) where I participated in a conference. One of the speakers asked me how to deal with nervousness and asked me for that one tip that would steady her nerves. I gave her some unconventional advice: make your audience wait.

Before speaking I told her to pour herself a glass of water on stage and in front of her audience – slowly. Then she should have a sip from it and only when completely ready put the glass back down and start to speak. This sequence of events does the following:

  1. It slows things down. Too many speakers dive straight in and rattle and ramble from the beginning.
  2. It establishes control. You give the appearance that you are going to do your speech at your pace, not someone else’s.
  3. It makes the audience anticipate. An audience needs to be ready before you begin, essentially asking itself “What is the speaker going to say”. It is a powerful way to get things started.

The video clip below is a great example of a speaker making his audience wait. The shuffling of papers, the slow walk, the deliberate pause: all of it builds an enormous amount of tension in the audience. The glass-of-water trick does the same.

So how did the speaker do? She did great, but with a twist. While pouring the glass of water she was telling her audience why she was doing it! It made everybody laugh and that broke the ice. The rest of her performance was top-notch.

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Stand Out When You Speak

The Euro is crumbling. Governments are falling. Bureaucrats in Brussels decide what’s best for countries running deficits they can’t afford, even telling governments to quit. No wonder many Brits praise Margaret Thatcher for not joining the Euro. This despite the UK being one of only three countries actually being within the Maastricht criteria at the time (the other two? Germany and Luxembourg).

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see British politicians feel self-righteous about maintaining monetary independence and sticking to the British Pound. One of those politicians is Nigel Farage.

Mr. Farage wears many different hats: he is the leader of the UK Independent Party, a member of the European Parliament and chairman of the European Freedom and Democracy group. Mr. Farage doesn’t very much like the undemocratic way in which decisions are made in Brussels and in the video clip below he makes his views known.

He does so in a compelling way: his sentences are short, his choice of words straightforward, his analogies biting, his speech succinct. All of this peppered with the odd pause for maximum impact. A good performance delivered with passion, whether you agree with him or not.

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Never Ask Your Audience to Multi-task

The traffic monitors in Abu Dhabi were stunned. For three days in October car accidents dropped by an astonishing 40%, after which things went back to normal. The traffic monitors soon realized what had happened. On October 10, 11 and 12 BlackBerries all over the world suffered an outage due to a core switch failure. Without their BlackBerries the drivers in Abu Dhabi became dramatically more safe.

Time Magazine 31 October 2011

It proves that the human brain is not wired to multi-task. David Rock, in his book “How the Brain Works”, states: “.. even the brain of a Harvard graduate can be turned into that of an eight-year-old simply by being made to do two things at once.”

Presenters often don’t realize this when they use PowerPoint. They happily throw up slides with words and data and then talk over them. Audiences get lost trying to sync the audio of the presenter with the video of the slide. The result? Death by PowerPoint.

Many presenters subscribe to the idea that two inputs are better than one. This is nonsense. It is the equivalent of going to a Harry Potter movie and reading the book at the same time.

Sequential dissemination of information is an incredibly important concept in PowerPoint meaning you must introduce ideas one at a time. The best way to introduce an idea or a concept? Talk about it first, then show it. In order to do so you must know which slide is coming next. Having notes handy that tell you what is going to come is the best way forward. You should refer to your notes and once the slide is properly introduced you can add the visual aide. In other words: Tell & Show, not Show & Tell.

One more tip: having your notes on a piece of paper is preferable because that way technology will not fail you. It happens more often than you think, just ask the world’s BlackBerry users.

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Handling Q&A: Why Republican Candidate Rick Perry Fails

Here are three golden rules when dealing with Q&A: 1) If someone asks you a question, give an answer; 2) Think before you answer; and 3) Keep the answer short. Republican front-runner Rick Perry fails on all three points when being asked about climate change in a recent television debate.

The reason we don’t like politicians is because they sidestep questions. And when they do it makes you cringe. Specifically Perry is being asked: “Which scientist do you find most credible on this subject?” The answer is one big waffle.

“Well I do agree there is … the science is not settled on this. The idea we would put Americans economy in jeopardy based on scientific theory that is not settled yet in to me is just it is nonsense I mean and I tell someone just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said ‘here is the fact’. Galileo got outvoted for a spell but the fact is to put America’s economic future in jeopardy asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country is not good economics and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.”

He fails on numerous counts:

1) He doesn’t know the answer. Fine. Say you don’t know. Better to lead out with “Sorry, I can’t quote a specific scientist on this matter” than to ignore the question altogether.

2) Instead of considering the question he starts talking straightaway, having to talk and think at the same time. The result is a huge waffle where he repeats himself – America economy jeopardy – three times. And what on earth is Galileo doing in his answer?

3) The longer he talks, the more unclear his message becomes. He strings all his ideas together into what seems to be one big long sentence. This is a usual trait of someone who is uncomfortable with what he’s saying.

I have watched Perry speak a couple of times now and this is a typical Perry performance. Mark my words: it won’t be long before he loses front-runner status.

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Steve Jobs: timing and humor

On August 25 Steve Jobs announced his retirement. It is surprising he didn’t retire earlier as his health has obviously been in decline. But you have to hand it to him: he timed the announcement very well.

In August 2011 Apple became America’s most valuable company, surpassing Exxon Mobile’s market capitalization. What a great moment to bow out and say: I’ve made my mark, Apple will survive without me. Perfect timing.

The moment he made his announcement the internet spawned an immediate joke: “Steve Jobs announces Retirement, now everybody wants Retirement.”

All sorts of magazines came out with their favorite Steve Jobs moments. Many of the moments focus on another Jobs trait: humor. Apple audiences are always appreciative of Steve’s tongue-in-cheeck comments and wonderfully choreographed presentations.

Having watched many Steve Jobs presentations over the years I’d like to add my three favorite moments:

1) In 1997, with Apple on its knees, Steve Jobs asked Bill Gates to invest USD 150 million in his company. Gates did, and when the face of the benefactor was shown live via satellite link during Mac World Expo the whole crowd started to jeer. Both Jobs and Gates had a laugh about it.

2) At the 2008 Apple World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) he starts off with this quote by Mark Twain: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” It was his cheeky response to a premature obituary accidentally released by Bloomberg.

3) At the 2002 WWDC Jobs announces the death of Mac OS 9, its outdated operating system, by giving a eulogy on stage in front of a coffin. The coffin carried a copy of Mac OS 9. Jobs describes Mac OS 9 as a good old friend whose time had come. His delivery is great.

In all three cases the timing was great – even significant – and the humor perfect.

Enjoy the video.

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