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
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
Copyright 1995. All rights reserved by Jennifer Harrison.