The Persuasive Power of Visual Language

04/04/2014 03:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2014

As a public speaker and frequent conference attendee, I have plenty of opinions about speaking, slides, and presentation styles. What's more, I just published a new book out on data visualization. Brass tacks: visualizing information can make a dramatic difference on audience understanding and engagement.

To this end, I recently spoke with Nadine Hanafi, CEO and founder of We Are Visual. Hanafi strives to eradicate mediocre presentations and empower people to become visual leaders and thinkers. An entrepreneur, designer, and speaker herself, Hanafi's goal is to demystify information design and visual communication to help clients achieve higher performance through visual literacy.

Q: What is the significance of your company's name?
A: We are visual creatures. Our brains are designed to process visual information much faster and more efficiently than any other form of information, be it auditory or sensory. Three in four of the neurons in our cerebral cortex are dedicated to processing visual information. Scientists have a name for this: the Picture Superiority Effect. Simply stated, this means that of all the senses we use to navigate the world around us, the visual sense dominates. We think in terms of images: we interpret visual language 60,000 times faster than text . Images are also very powerful tools for capturing attention and evoking emotion. So effectively pairing verbal and visual information in a presentation can enhance understanding, recall and believability. As the sayings go, "seeing is believing" and "a picture is worth a thousand words."

Q: Why are images more effective than bullet points?
A: The bullet point style of presentation simply doesn't align with our cognitive abilities and ignores what we know about how our brains work. Our brains are not capable of processing two streams of verbal information at the same time. So if you are speaking to your audience while showing them text on a slide, they must make a decision to either ignore your slides and listen to you or listen to you and ignore your slides. Either way, your slides become a distraction rather than a tool to emphasize and support what you are saying. On the other hand, we are perfectly capable of processing visual and verbal information simultaneously. So if a presenter is speaking and showing an image at the same time, it takes the audience a split second to take in and process the image while focusing on the presenter's words. This is known as the Dual Coding theory. In essence, the learning process is akin to traffic patterns. Exclusively using verbal language (written and spoken) is like trying to cram big city rush hour traffic into a one-lane road. Adding visuals opens an additional three lanes, creating a free-flowing information superhighway that allows you to communicate more information, more persuasively and more effectively.

Q: You are a big proponent of simplicity during presentations. Explain why?
A: A simple and clear message is much more powerful than an overly technical talk with loads of data. Some presenters are initially reluctant to simplify their message because they fear appearing "unprofessional" or "incompetent". I think that "dumbing down" your content is possibly the best thing you can do for your presentation. Your audience (even a technical one) will appreciate you making an effort to simplify your message. When you wrap your message in easy to understand metaphors, images and stories, the information you share flows almost effortlessly into your audience's minds. In addition to making it easier to understand, this also makes it easier for your audience to repeat, thus helping you spread your message well after your 20 minutes are up.

Q: How important is it to know your audience?
A: I think knowing your audience is the number one best practice when it comes to presentations. You want to understand your audience's motivation and their triggers, then find a way to leverage those trigger points in your presentation. If you are able to strike a chord with your audience, then your message will resonate much deeper with them. The best part is when you get those elusive "nodding and agreeing" reactions and you know that the audience is getting it. Presenters must realize that their audience is the hero of their idea; they are the ones who have the ability to take their message and spread it, fund it or otherwise move it forward.

For more tips and free resources from Nadine, click here.