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Talkin' Pictures

Phil Hawkins

Do you talk in pictures?

Most people would say not, usually we speak in words - but people listen in pictures. 

They use the words you say to create a picture in their mind.  How they create those pictures is a story for another day – a long day!  Here's an example:


There is nothing funny in the words used by Dilbert's unfortunate date, but the picture created in Dilbert's mind was amusing – Wile E. Coyote, et al.

This may explain a few things.

Assuming it to be true for a moment, that people listen in pictures, this may explain a few things.

Have you ever overheard an argument in which someone says “you said this ---”, and the other says “no I did not----”?  The first thing you probably noticed is that this line of reasoning doesn't get very far.

The truth is that people do not remember what you said - the words you used - they remember the picture that was created.  When they say what you said, it is actually a description of the picture they have.

The moral of that story is don't tell people what they said, because you probably don't remember the exact words.  If you are like most people, you probably don't even remember what you said with any accuracy.

Pictures are powerful.

The picture is very powerful. Often, in a serious meeting, someone will burst out laughing.  The person will apologise profusely and explain that they just had a vision of something humourous – often nothing to do with the subject of the meeting – but sparked by the words someone spoke.

This means that the picture we leave people with is more important than the words we speak.  The words are not remembered, but the pictures are.

I find this gives new meaning to the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

Words don't mean the same thing to everybody.

I don't mean by any of this that we do not choose our words carefully.  Unfortunately, a word does not mean the same thing to everyone – meaning, in this case, a particular word does not create the same picture for everyone.  So now when we speak we need to be aware that pictures are being created, and we need to ensure that the correct picture (the one we wanted) has been created.

I was having a conversation with someone and used the word “evacuate”.  I used the term as I had been taught in high school physics, meaning to suck all the air out of something.  The person I was talking to was horrified.  She told me that I wouldn't use that term if I knew what it really meant.  It turns out that she was a nurse and “evacuating” to her meant sucking all the fluids out of a person's body.

Imagine that picture as a conversation stopper!

Why is this important?

A conversation, as we know, involves speaking and listening.  If you are speaking, how do you keep the person to whom you are speaking actually listening to your conversation?  Take the above example of the nurse.  How much do you think she was listening to me, whilst picturing a body having all its fluids sucked out?

The ability to keep people listening is a very difficult task, and not to be taken lightly.  As a speaker it is your job to see that the message you want to convey is received as you intended.  In fact, as a manager, it is literally your job to see that the message is received as intended; this is how we communicate operational details. 

So it follows that to communicate (speak) effectively you have to know how to listen.

What can we do?

As we speak, with the best words we can muster, we must be always wondering what picture we are creating in the audience.  Be aware of using, without further explanation, words that you know may have many interpretations. For example, “outsourcing” is a current hot topic that will result in many different “pictures”. 

There are many others, I am sure you could create a long list.  The best way to find out is to ask, and welcome any feedback - even when the feedback is critical.

Often you will hear someone ask “what does that look like?  This is very good question and goes a long way towards helping us create an appropriate picture. For instance, when you hear an executive say he or she is “committed to quality”, then “what does that look like?” becomes an excellent question.

As a listener, it is even better to state your intention before asking the question.  An example would be “just so that I have the correct picture” or “so I don't end up doing the wrong thing” and then ask the question for clarification.  Communication is so much better when both the speaker and the listener collaborate on developing a proper understanding of the message.

An alternative to starting with “you said this”, is beginning with “what I heard you say is...”, or “what I picture is....”  This is good, because it doesn't make the speaker wrong, and it helps clarify the picture you (and the others in the meeting) are creating. 

However you do it, this process is vital, though not easy.  Some speakers grow defensive when asked to clarify - it takes practice to create clarity without ruffling feathers.

There is an adage that says “if you are not clear, then it is not clear.”  There is always the possibility that the speaker's message does not stand up to scrutiny.  While this can be temporarily embarrassing, it should be regarded as just another step on the road to clarity.


Really enjoyed this post Phil. I think it is especially important to watch which words you use, especially expressions when speaking with people who are not speaking their native language, or are from different cultures. People might have absolutely no idea what you are saying, and might even be offended. I always find it amusing when someone whose second language is french says, “Je suis fini”, “I’m finished”, as in dead. I know they meant to say “J’ai fini”,“I’m finished”, but it still paints a different mental picture in my mind, that distracts me for a second.

By Maxwell Sunohara on 2011/06/21

Good point Max. 

I am constantly amazed when I hear people talking to someone whose first language is not English.  Usually they say something in “polite” language, full of ‘75 cent’ words.  When the person does not understand, they do not drop down to simpler sentence/word structure, to be more understandable, but merely repeat what they said before.

By this time the listener is totally embarrassed and communication goes downhill from there.

The basic operational rule of communication is that the onus is on the speaker to have his or her message understood, whatever that takes. 

This often means, as a speaker, stepping outside your communication comfort zone, or to put it another way acknowledging that the picture you have of what communication should look like isn’t working in this case.  Remember, speakers have pictures too!

By Phil Hawkins on 2011/06/22

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Posted by Phil Hawkins
Posted on June 21, 2011

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Categories: communication, hr & talent management, leadership, management, organizational development