In 1984 American television news reporter Lesley Stahl filed a long report for the evening news. It featured footage of President Reagan in typically amiable form visiting the Special Olympics for children with disabilities.
The tone of Stahl’s report, however, was rather different. She reported that Reagan had cut funding for children with disabilities. Exposing as it did an air of Presidential hypocrisy, Stahl worried that her White House sources would be angry enough to freeze her out.
To her surprise, however, a senior Reagan staffer phoned to tell her how much they loved it. Stahl was amazed. ‘Didn’t you hear what I said?’ she asked. ‘Nobody heard what you said’, the staffer responded.
This story, from Gavin Esler’s book Lessons from the Top shows the stark power of pictures. Stahl thought she’d filed a daring exposé of Presidential double standards. But the Reagan team knew that viewers had watched pictures of the President looking concerned and caring – and that the power of those pictures would override any negatives from the commentary.
The pictorial superiority effect
‘One picture is worth a thousand words’, the saying goes, and science shows this to be true. It even has its own name: the pictorial superiority effect, or PSE.
In Brain Rules, John Medina shows that pictures demolish text and oral presentations when it comes to recall of information. If you present information orally, says Medina, people remember about 10 percent, tested 72 hours after exposure. That figure soars to 65 percent if you add a picture.
It’s a sobering assessment of the impotency of words alone. While there may be great examples of vivid, powerful speeches that touch generations, these are exceptions rather than the rule.
So how can we use that knowledge to change the way we communicate?
1. Revamp your presentations
The most powerful presentations understand the power of pictures by using images to tell a story. Unfortunately, the opposite is more common: filling slides with bullet points. When people do use pictures, it’s often for decoration, rather than to add meaning.
Take a look at any Steve Jobs keynote presentation at Apple: you’ll find big images, video, and usually no more than six words on any slide.
2. Use image-based communication tools
Every month, we watch six billion hours of video on Youtube alone – almost one hour for every person on the planet. Video has become so ubiquitous and easy to create that it’s become an essential part of the communications mix. But other image-based tools can play a big role too.
Big Picture-style internal comms campaigns can be hugely effective in helping employees explore and understand company direction or strategy. You can find examples at Big Picture Learning or at www.scarlettabbott.co.uk, like this one from the RSPB.
Visual note taking is also becoming increasingly popular, using companies like Creative Connection. Capturing meeting and conference outputs in a visual format can vastly improve the chances they’ll be shared and understood, and that participants will feel they’ve been listened to.
3. “If you’re not bored of saying it, you haven’t said it enough”
Understanding the limitations of the spoken word should also influence the communications advice we give to leaders. ‘If you’re not bored of saying it,’ the old adage goes, “you haven’t said it enough.” Unless we continually repeat simple, key messages, they’re unlikely to resonate.
Whatever our approach, we ignore the power of pictures at our peril.