Invitation to the Mind's Eye

Speech presented by Jennifer Harrison

    As speakers and writers, words are our tools in trade. Words are how we convey our

ideas to others. To succeed at engaging our audience we must impart relevance and impact

into our ideas with words. Word pictures and symbols heat up ideas and make them sizzle

in the mind of your audience.

    When you engage a person's imagination -- you've captured their interest. When you

engage someone's imagination they become co-authors of your message. Temper your

words, your message, with concrete images, comparisons and symbols, and you will capture

the imagination of your audience.

     Each of you here has a vast body of stored knowledge and experiences. You bring

far more information to a communication event than I, or any other speaker, can hope to

impart. To increase the impact of my message, I want to engage your imagination and

trigger your own knowledge and experiences. The personal meaning you contribute will

make my message more vivid and compelling for you, the audience.

    Engaging the minds of others is a powerful ability. The process of evoking stored

information and experiences from an audience is known as resonance. Resonance in

communications is a term coined by Tony Schwartz in his classic book, The Responsive

Chord. The idea is to find words, dramas or other cues that evoke personal meaning in the

mind of your audience.

    Tonight, I want to discuss how you can use word pictures and symbolic language to

engage your audience in a way that is memorable and meaningful to them.

    Did you know that the human mind favors thinking in pictures? Pictures and stories

are the most basic way people grasp an idea. Pictures and stories are often needed to talk

about feelings, values and abstract ideas. Freud and others tell us picture language begins

before we can think in words. The ability to visualize ideas on the screen of our

imagination -- is made possible by our stored experiences and knowledge.

    Asking rhetorical questions is one way to engage the mind and evoke stored

knowledge. Grabbing the imagination, with word pictures and symbolic expression, is

another way.

    Have you ever considered that language is a system of symbols? Words represent

either objects or abstract ideas. Words depict concrete objects like tables and chairs. But

words also represent abstract ideas like love, fear or courage. "The ability to manipulate

symbols," says psychologist Robert Goldenson, "is the essence of thinking, since it frees us

from the objects so we can visualize, anticipate. . . imagine and work out problems in our


   Using word pictures and concrete images improves perception and comprehension for

your audience. Memorable images appeal to the receiver's senses. Concrete nouns, action

verbs and figures of speech make good images.

    What provides a better word picture -- a leader, or an Indian Chief? What image is

more distinct -- an insect or a bee? When you want to be vivid use concrete words, not

abstractions. Be specific versus general in your details.

     Then go on a hunt for abstract Latin terms like committee, coordinate or facilitate and

kill those boars! Business and scholarly rhetoric are full of dull and drab words based on

Latin roots. Most scientific and professional sounding words are Latin in origin.

    Words like redundancy, minimize or integrate are too abstract to engage our

imagination. They lack life and sensory appeal. So minimize, I mean axe, those Latin


    Instead, favor Anglo-Saxon words like road, axe or bucket. The Anglo-Saxons left us

many graphic words that make great word pictures. So remember, Latin words -- dull, drab.

Anglo-Saxon words -- good, graphic, full of life.

    Bellow life into your language with action verbs. Passive verbs like came, went,

entered or sat -- lack sensory detail. Instead of telling us you went to the store, tell us you

trodded to the store heavy with worry. Don't tell us you diligently applied yourself to the

task. Tell us you hurtled yourself into your work, full-steam-ahead. Help us experience

your ideas with vivid verbs that involve our imagination.

    Figures of speech grab our imagination by comparing two unlike things. Analogies,

metaphor, similes and parables compare something abstract to something based on sensory

perception. Make your words sparkle with sensory language and comparisons.

    For example, "Marcy's life was like the river -- fast, cold and unforgiving." This

comparison appeals to our senses, our imagination. We can imagine a great deal about

Marcy from a wee-bit of information. The river becomes a symbol for Marcy's life.

   True symbols are ambiguous. A river can dredge-up numerous meanings and

associations. What else might you compare to the river? Perhaps the deep, dark waters of

the river remind you of your finances. Or maybe the river is more like a mountain lion with

periods of peacefulness broken by spells of wild tempest.

     Symbolic language is all around us, in movies, advertising, literature and dreams.

Our symbol-making ability, as well as our ability to perceive symbols, is only partly

conscious. Symbols hold an intuitive appeal. They engage our senses, our imagination and

often, our emotions.

    Although a symbol seems to represent a concrete object, it carries enlarging

connotations. According to Jean and Wallace Clift, symbolic language expresses inner

experience, feelings and thoughts as if they were sensory objects or experiences in the outer

world. For instance, cowboy boots and a pickup truck are objects with an enlarged meaning

of rugged individualism and masculinity.

    Symbolic language often carries emotional power. The emotional power of symbols

are related to our culture, our values, the mental associations we have with a symbol, and

the context it's used.

    Birds are an example of the rich ambiguity of symbols. Think of the numerous

meanings birds can represent. A bird can represent spirituality -- such as the holy spirit

embodied as a white dove. Doves have also symbolized peace, goodwill and love -- as in a

couple of love birds. At the other end of the spectrum, an eagle represents strength,

freedom and courage.

    Consider the flock of metaphor we can hatch in relation to our fine feathered friends.

Have you ever been watched like a hawk? Do you know someone who eats like a bird?

Have you ever taken a flight of fancy? Lately, I get the impression my infant son perches in

my arms like a little bird peering out of its nest.

   Comparisons, symbols and concrete images add color, depth and impact to our use of

language. When you prepare your next speech or article, try comparing your main idea to a

sensory object. Develop associations with the sensory object and make a list. Then splice-in

your word associations to flesh-out details and bind your speech together.

     For this speech I thought of two analogies. I wanted to compare language use to

music or tools. The tools of an ironsmith appealed to me more. As a writer, I market

myself as a wordsmith, so this comparison jumped out at me. But I also thought the

ironsmith metaphor would appeal to men in the audience who might have trouble warming up

to an introverted topic like symbolic language.

   As I revised my speech, I wanted to make my theme more obvious. I did some

brainstorming. At the top of a page I wrote "smithing." I started listing terms related to the

trade of smithing. I asked my husband to add a few terms and explain an anvil to me. With

my list in hand, I went back to my speech and applied, I mean hammered-out, some details

using my tool-time theme.

    Once you start developing associations with your comparison, it begins to snowball.

Have fun with it. Let it become a game. This game works best for me when I fix my attention

on my opening and close. This ensures I pound my theme into at least the beginning and end of my speech.

This may be all the time I have. But if I have a little more time, I work on the body of the speech, to

temper it as well with my figurative comparison. The end result is a speech that's like a

harnessed team of horses, driving your message home. The end result is a product that's

more memorable and meaningful for the audience.

    The concrete images of symbolic language allow us to tap into emotions, abstract

ideas, and the values of our audience. Such things are the deeper, more meaningful stuff of

life. It is this more meaningful stuff, our values and emotions, that motivates people and

shapes our behavior.

    When shaping your messages, consider the mind's desire to think with pictures and

stories. Use vivid images, anecdotes and comparisons to involve your audience. Appeal to

your audience's values and you will touch their hearts. Appeal to your audience's

imagination and you will touch their minds.

     Keep our attention smoldering by adding fuel to our imagination. Word pictures and

symbolic expression carry tremendous power to capture our imagination and tug on our

heartstrings. #

Copyright 1995.  All rights reserved by Jennifer Harrison.