“I want pictures in my mind,” I tell my students. “Paint me pictures. Give me word pictures.” The more I can see, feel, taste, and smell what is happening in the speech, the more I am engaged. This chapter is about how to give your students a sensory experience when you speak. It is about using vivid and sensory words to engage the audience. I want to “show” you what this looks like by giving you several quality speeches to experience for yourself.
The tongue can paint
what the eyes can’t see.
Listen as Will Smith describes jumping out of an airplane. By describing the light colors and what is going on in his mind, we begin to feel his story.
Which of these two sentences gets your attention?
The glass shattered into tiny pieces
the glass broke
If you are like most people, the sentence that says the “glass shattered into tiny pieces” captured your attention and caused you to visualize the breaking glass. You might have even thought of the last time you broke a glass. It works because it used vivid language.
Listen as Matthew Dicks explains what it is like to be homeless and taken in by a family that has a pet goat that chews on his hair at night and then he continues to tell his story of being robbed at gunpoint. Notice how you can “see” his story in your mind’s eye.
In an experiment of investing in the market, researchers tested whether or not language would affect investor judgment. They tested vivid words versus pallid words. In this study, a vivid phrase was “sales jumped...analysts viewed this as very impressive” and the pallid phrase was ” sales increased..analysts view this performance as positive.” The vivid phrase showed stronger results. In other words, how you tell people to invest can impact the outcome. This is just one of many studies that show the impact of vivid language on thoughts and behaviors.
In other research studies, vivid messages created greater desirability for the product, caused people to have more favorable beliefs toward an idea and even influenced judgments. Why do they work? Vivid messages work, in part, because they hold our attention.
For vividness to be effective, it must do all the following:
(a) Emotionally interesting.
(b) Vivid enough to produce sensations or visual images.
(c) Relatable. It must be consistent with the audience’s experiences and knowledge.
(d) Related to the central thesis.
At the center of it all, is the audience. The key to making vividness work is audience understanding. For example, A cenote is a pool of water made by a sinkhole that exposes groundwater. This water is usually very clear, very clean, and very cool. Unless you’ve been to a cenote, you may have no idea what a cenote is and therefore would have no idea when a speaker says the lake water was like the cool, clear, water of a cenote. Instead of evoking images, it only produces confusion. Vividness works when the audience can relate, and they can call up the sensations or visual images.
It is also important that the vivid statements relate to the thesis. Researchers Guadagno, Rhoads, and Sagrins tested why sometimes vividness worked and other times it did not. With testing, they found that vivid words persuaded only when the message was strong and the vivid words regarded the central thesis. When vivid information was introduced that did not relate to the main point, it became a distraction. It seems that vividness enhances persuasion, but only when purposefully used, otherwise it is just a distraction that undermines persuasion. Oh yeah, no surprise here, but vividness can’t save a weak argument.
Let’s look at a strong speech that uses vividness.
- Stripped of home and country, refugees are buffeted from every ill wind that blows across this planet.
- They guided me into a small dirt house with no roof to keep out the scorching heat, and they dusted off the two old mats that they ate, slept and prayed on. And we sat and we talked, and they were just the loveliest women. And then with a few twigs and a single tin cup of water, they made the last of their tea and insisted on me to enjoy it.
- He had a dusty face, the brightest green eyes I have ever seen but such a sad look but she explained that he’s always asking for more food. And it hurts her to say that they have nothing. And she asked if we would consider taking him, would we take her sons so he could eat. And she said it with tears in her eyes with such desperation.
- He sat on the dusty floor; he’s been shot on the back and left paralyzed. And he crawled forward to shake my hand, he was no more than fifteen. He had big pretty eyes, big wide sparkling smile, and after all he’d been through, he’s full of laughter and love. Later that night I asked whether he’d not been taken to a hospital or at least given a wheelchair and I was told that the boy’s entire family had been killed so there was no one to look after him.
After you read this chapter, revisit this speech. While looking at the transcript, try to make a list of all the vivid and sensory words. Categorize them based on the sense they activate.
Use Sensory Words
One type of vividness comes from sensory words. Research demonstrates that we process those words faster than other words. By sensory words, I’m talking about words that have to do with seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching. For just a moment, imagine you are in Paris and you look up to see the top of the Eiffel tower where the structure touches the sky. Chances are, as you thought about this, your eyes went up. You sensed with your body the words that were being spoken. When you hear or read sensory words that you can relate to, your brain lights up. Your brain lights up in the same area that the actual experience would occur–it is as if you are experiencing the word and not just hearing it. When someone talks about the “sweet, gooey cookie pulled out of the oven, and the sweet aroma fills the air and you look down at the partially melted chocolate chips and are eager to take a bite. ” This sentence caused many of you to taste and see the cookie and your brain lights up as if you are eating one. Words that evoke a mental image are the most likely to evoke a sensory image. The more you create “word pictures” that we see in the movie of our minds, the more likely we are to experience it with other senses.
What follows is a chart of the main senses and with examples of the words associated with that sense.
The Power of Sensory Words
Touch Sensory Words
Tactile words describe the texture of how something feels. You can also use them to describe feelings and abstract concepts.
gritty, creepy, slimy, sticky, rough
Examples of touch words:
Sound Sensory Words
|Words related to hearing often describe the sound.
crashing, thumping, piercing, thundering, squeaking
Examples of hearing words:
Sight Sensory Words
|Visual words describe the appearance of something. They may indicate color, shape, or appearance.
gloomy, dazzling, bright, foggy, vibrant
Sight word examples:
Taste and Sensory Words
|Taste words are interesting because often they are a metaphor for something else. For example, a “bitter rejection” has nothing to do with taste.
zesty, tantalizing, sweet, stale
Examples of taste words:
Smell Sensory Words
|Words related to smell describe — yes, you guessed it — how things smell. Often underutilized, sensory words connected with smell can be very effective.
putrid, flowery, stinky
Examples of smell words:
|Many of these examples are from smartblogger.com and exchangedmarketing.com.|
Notice how Brene Brown describes a situation–She has on white slacks and a pink sweater set and how she dropped her coffee on the tile floor, and it splashed on her. She goes on to say that she blamed her husband. She uses it to make a powerful point about blame and accountability and demonstrates for us the power of how vivid descriptions can draw us in and make us want to listen.
Considerations of Using Vividness
The easier that information is for me to think about, remember, and recall, the more that information influences my decisions. Your goal should be to give the information in such a way that people can process that information. The availability heuristic suggests that when making decisions we tend to base those decisions on things that come to our mind easily. If information is recent, vivid, and fits into our thought patterns, it is more available and therefore is more likely to influence our decision-making.
We are likely to think crime is a threat if there has been a recent break-in in our neighborhood. We are more likely to feel afraid if we watch a lot of crime shows or if there has been a featured news story on assaults. Since that information is recent in our mind and the stories were told to us in a vivid manner, we are more likely to pay attention to that information and then bring it to mind when someone suggests taking a self-defense course.
This collection of motivational stories is powerful because they are real and because in each case, they are told with vividness.
In this next video, the founder of charity water, Scott Harrison tells how he got involved in charity water and what his organization does. Watch this documentary and speech video as he talks about drinking from “scummy swamps.” And how he describes how the women are “breaking their backs to get it.” (You can stop watching at the statistics part –but I warn you it may be hard to stop). What is the point here? The point is for you to notice how he infuses speech, powerful visuals, and vivid words to persuade us to act and to help others to get clean water.
If you watched the video, you saw a worm in the water. Some of you likely had a visceral reaction. For many of you, it caused you to sympathize with the cause, for others, it may have gone too far, and you protected yourself by not watching or by making fun of the video.
If you try to take vividness too far, it can backfire on you. Thoughts that are too uncomfortable, might cause people to suppress the information or deny it altogether. This is particularly true when creating messages that instill fear.
The Extended Parallel Process Model looks at how people respond to messages that create fear as a way to drive positive health outcomes. For example, to get someone to wear a condom, a speaker might activate fear and make them afraid that they will get a sexually transmitted disease. A speaker might share statistics, gruesome stories, and even show slides of infections (flashback to high school health class). The challenge is that people have different reactions to fear-invoking situations–they either minimize their fear–“That’s not going to happen to me, I could tell if my partner has an infection” or they minimize the danger and wear a condom. So what makes the difference?
A speaker who is trying to use research and analogies that produce fear has to find the “sweet spot” in order to get the audience to react in a way that produces a positive health outcome. If the danger feels like it is too much, the listener will just panic or deny the danger. Describing things in too vivid of detail can often backfire and cause people to worry but do nothing or deny that the situation is real.
The goal should be to use just enough vividness that it is memorable and to direct examples towards the specific audience, so they are relatable. Most importantly, fear messages work best when coupled with a specific plan of action. If people feel like there is a do-able way to get rid of the fear, and they are capable of doing it, they are more likely to react.
To recap. For an audience to be impacted, the message has to be relatable. It should be vivid enough to be memorable and activate the senses–but not so vivid that it overwhelms the main message. Vivid descriptions should support the central message. If you are trying to persuade an audience and you use vividness to produce fear, you need to offer them specific, manageable ways to act. Vividness is one more tool in your public speaking toolbelt. Use it wisely!
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