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Use imagery to make speeches stronger

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Communication has two main components: the rational the emotional. Managers mostly communicate in rational mode – about hard data and facts. Unfortunately, as we all know, facts can be dry. And facts quoted in speeches can make the listeners fall asleep. Then what can we do to get the message across better?

When facts are central to a message, the role for the speaker is to interpret the figures for their audience. Leaving the audience to make sense of the information as best they can, especially technical information, allows the audience members to place their individual interpretation on the information. They will always filter the rational message through their own experiences and beliefs. However, by interpreting the data for the audience, you guide them to the key conclusions.

A good example is investor relations activity – potential investors are not interested in the mere data about a company and the share price to that point; they are interested in what the data means. They want someone knowledgeable to tell them about the implications of the rational data.

The other key factor is emotion. Emotion provides the motivation for action. Providing facts for consideration is reporting; it is a staff-level function. Motivating people to action is leadership, an executive quality.

The emotional or motivational impact is often best presented through symbols that arouse and create emotion in the listener. Persuasive messages must have both facts and emotion, so use strong but familiar words that create pictures in people’s minds.

Listeners’ senses are the key to effective communication: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell and visceral (motion and emotion). People best remember things that reach their sensory memory. Most people are visually oriented. They prefer to receive messages in pictures. Visual symbols are the most powerful of the sensory communication tools.

The best way to activate an audience is to select just a couple of sensory-rich details to reinforce the important points in the message. To bring home the impact of company retrenchments, the speaker can paint a single, vivid picture – a small example that illuminates a point. Skilled leaders often use this technique. They distil social/political programs to their essence and summarize through metaphors. They use highly visual examples – usually a story about how a single person is affected.

And they use metaphors. A metaphor is a symbol or image applied to an object or action to which it is imaginatively but not literally applicable. Metaphors occur frequently in every language and are used to conceptualize one mental domain in terms of another. Everyday abstract concepts like time, change, causation and purpose can be expressed metaphorically. These images add great strength to the communication. For example:
  • “We’re like a ship without a rudder.”

  • “We’re heading for the rocks.”

  • “There’ll be blood on the floor at the next committee meeting.”

  • “Our competitor has been a thorn in our side.”

  • “The project fell over at the first hurdle.”

  • “This is an enormous roadblock to our plans.”

  • “That investor jumped the gun.”

  • “Heavy-handed policy.”

  • “Grass-roots organization.”

  • “Out of the mainstream.”

It is even more powerful to extend the metaphor as an umbrella concept to provide a framework on which to base subsidiary images. For example, several metaphors relating to a ship can be used as long as the image isn’t strained in order to get the extra effect. For example, steering the right course, sailing through stormy seas, fair weather navigating a difficult course, compass, reaching port, helmsman, engine room, lookout, mast, anchor, rudder, crew, team, passengers, cargo, guns, etc. And you can quote some of the best sayings around such as “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” (Publius Syrus ~100 BC).

But don’t mix the metaphors, especially in the same sentence: “We were swamped with a shocking barrage of work, and the extra burden had a clear impact on our workflow.” A total of seven metaphors are mixed up in the images of marsh (swamped), electrocution or striking (shocking), a military assault (barrage), weight (burden), translucency (clear), a physical impression (impact), and a river or fluid (flow), all in the one sentence!

Ensure the symbols and metaphors aren’t overdone. It’s counter-productive to weave too rich a tapestry of words, sights and sounds – the audience will get turned off. And remember: avoid clichés like the plague!

Research confirms that image-based words are stronger than concept-based words. A study of the comparative charisma and greatness of all the US Presidents concluded that the metaphorical images they used helped to distinguish the great Presidents from the average (assuming their achievements were solid). This line of research provides one of the few opportunities to compare the attributes of various leaders over time.

The table below, based on the research, shows strong image-based words compared with concept-based words. Image-based words more easily arouse a sensory image in people’s minds, thereby engaging the readers or listeners more fully. A speaker talking of their “heavy heart” has more impact than a person with “sad news.” Examples of image-based words compared with concept-based words are:

Image-based words Concept-based words
sweat work
hand help
root source
heart commitment
explore enquire
rock dependable
grow produce
journey endeavor
frontier limit
path alternative
clamor request
sweet agreeable
tranquil moderate
dream idea
imagine think
listen consider
see understand


This article is adapted from the forthcoming e-book, Deliver high-performance speeches and presentations, by Kim Harrison.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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