Can an Image Paint a Thousand Words?

Here’s what’s interesting about the brain.  It relies on memories to develop our values and belief systems.

I had to think about that at first because my initial reaction was, don’t I decide what I believe?  Nope.  My brain has an active role in determining what I believe based on what I remember.  Of course then I get to filter that information. 

So the mind, what we think of as our conscious self relies quite heavily on what the brain is doing and lets face it, the brain doesn’t really have the best filing system in the world or I’d be able to remember the name of that movie, you know the one with that guy…

And that leads me to images.  Images are the place where our memories hang. 
If you don’t believe me then look at the word below:


Now, how do you feel? How many memories were immediately triggered?  Or did you have to think about what the word meant first? 


Now, look at the image below:

So, this time, how did you feel?  How many memories were immediately triggered?

With the word you probably got some ideas about what the word means and what it means to you.  But I’m betting you didn’t have an emotional reaction like you might have when you looked at the image.

Images are powerful.  Not only are they worth a thousand words, they are worth a whole host of emotions, values, beliefs, passions and more. 

This is what makes VisualsSpeak tools so effective.  When working with individuals or groups on big questions about innovation or leadership or teambuilding.  Nothing breaks through barriers quite as quickly as images do.  Images reach into the brain’s filing cabinet of memories and make connections we couldn’t make as well on our own.

If you want big breakthroughs with your clients, if you want successful sessions every time, give images an opportunity to shine.  You’ll be amazed at the results… we always are!

The ImageSet does it all – check it out! >> ImageSet


Getting to know co-workers better

Kathryn works for a regional mental health agency, alongside a team that has been together a long time. Even though they’ve been a group for a while, the pressure and pace of the work doesn’t give them much chance to talk. They are just too busy providing services for their clients.
So Kathryn brought a VisualsSpeak ImageSet to a staff meeting. And what a difference it made!
In just an hour, they created images about themselves and got to know things about each other they otherwise would never know. That single session created a lot of humor and jokes and created all new points of reference for the people they work with.
Six months later, the team is still using references to that day and what they learned. Way to go, Kathryn! Nice use of the tools.


Why Use Images?

Light a flame in participants!How do the images get such better results than traditional verbal-only or verbal+writing approaches? What are the benefits of using images? There are many! Here are a handful:

Create more engaging processes
Photographs have a natural way of getting people to look and ask questions. There are usually stories attached to them. Think about the last time you were around someone showing pictures of a recent trip or of their family to a group of people. What happens? Stories get told, people ask questions and the lookers begin to tell stories of their own, because the combination of stories and pictures spark connections for them. People are engaged!

This is very similar to the process that happens with VisualsSpeak tools. People will be engaged. And when they get engaged, they participate.

Increase participation
Because you are using a visual-based tool, you have helped people to engage with the process. This kind of engagement develops a synergy. When one person “gets it,” the others are soon to follow. Even people who had no inclination or desire to participate when they arrived are much more inclined to do so when others get actively involved. Who wants to be the odd one out?

Connect the dots
Images help participants get below the surface quickly. They create a door between the conscious and subconscious, giving your groups the ability to make associations and connections to information that is not always directly accessible. This linkage allows them to take leaps in their thinking by getting them out of their literal, analytical minds.

Level the playing field for non-native speakers
If your group consists of non-native speakers of the dominant language, then using images gives them another way to express themselves. The photographs will allow these participants to literally show their thoughts and gives them ways to communicate other than just in words. This has the added benefit of helping them feel included and empowered to share more. As a result, VisualsSpeak tools are used successfully across a wide range of intercultural settings.

Inspire storytelling
Stories are everywhere. They are the basis of communication regardless of culture. Every day we are bombarded with stories in the form of advertisements, movies, news, books, radio, songs and more. Even financial reports are stories told in the language of mathematics! Images help unlock the inner storyteller in your participants.

Increase learning through fun
Searching through stacks of images is a process that invokes fun in participants. They will compare and share stories about them, and engage in creative dialogues and find new ways to express themselves. Don’t ever doubt the power of increased learning through having fun–especially when it comes to adults!

Breaking out of habitual patterns
It is easy to fall into routines of thinking–it’s actually how we develop our expertise! Most of the time this is very helpful, but it can also tip into patterns that do not allow for new possibilities. Using images to spark associations can lead us to new ideas and insights that are beyond what we think about with words alone. The brain processes pictures faster and in larger chunks, to we can further open the possibility of making leaps in our thinking by using images.


Picking the 'Right' Images

ImageSet imagesOne of the most common areas of confusion with the VisualsSpeak tools for new users is around the images themselves and how to use them.

People are accustomed to using images to convey meaning. This is how they’re used most often, after all. We use images to convey meaning in PowerPoints, for example. Advertisers use images to convey meaning in 15- and 30-second blocks on TV every minute of the day and night.

So when people sit down with VisualsSpeak tools, either in print or online, they begin in that mold. They often start with the idea of finding the ‘right’ image. But that misses the point of the tool — and why it’s so powerful.

VisualsSpeak tools are designed to elicit information, not merely convey it. So instead of starting with the meaning and moving to images to represent it, the idea is to start with the images, and use them to figure out the meaning. It’s a different process, and it can be confusing at first. But it quickly becomes a lot of fun!

This different approach to the images makes it much more difficult to put a set of images together, and it’s why it often takes a long time for us to piece together a new set for targeted outcomes, like team-building or leadership development.

The mix has to be exactly right. That means in terms of the content itself — people, things, nature, life in motion. But also aspects of the content — colors, lines, aspect ratios, sizing, mood. After many years of research, we’ve mapped out a set of guideline ratios for each of them, which allow us to parse through the 10,000+ images that we’ve created over the years and put a set together.

But that only gets us close. There’s still a bunch of testing and refinement before we put the VisualsSpeak name and logo on it.

It takes a lot of effort for us to find the ‘right’ images — to enable participants to struggle with NOT finding them!


VisualsSpeak versus Collage

When people see the VisualsSpeak process for the first time, or they look at our web site, one question that often comes up is about how it differs from collage. One artifact of the VisualsSpeak process looks a lot like collage, after all, with images arranged (often overlapping) on a surface or backing paper. But in actuality, they’re really quite different.

VisualsSpeak takes the randomness of results and the time-consuming nature of traditional collage processes out of the equation. The images that participants use have been tested in advance and pre-selected for accessibility and effectiveness across a broad range of topics. Here at VisualsSpeak, we spent years researching the underlying visual language of images and how that translates into creating processes that will engage groups and transform their conversations.

Also, participant and facilitation time will not be wasted by having to collect materials and clean up after the process is over. Participants won’t be spending precious time by having to clip images from magazines. Unlike traditional collage, VisualsSpeak is the opposite of a design process, because the emphasis is on rapidly selecting and arranging the photos, which engages the intuitive part of the brain.

What this means to you is that you are helping groups to bypass the linear/intellectual and delve into the fertile levels of imagination and creativity!


Big Questions in Little Time

As a part of our monthly Tuesday Topics series of free phone calls, we interviewed Christine Martell in September on Asking Better Questions. As a part of that conversation, Christine addressed the concern of asking big questions when you have time constraints in a group:

CM: We start with this big overall framing question, get people all kinda going in the same direction so that we’re not just scattered. And then, there’s the start of a conversation. At the start of a conversation, it’s a divergent process. It’s about opening up, getting the ideas out, in as broad a sense as you can.

Examples of questions that might fit into that category: Can you tell me more? With the images, what did you notice? Talking about others in the group, what did you notice about what this person said? What else could this mean?

Interviewer: So we’re starting with kind of a big, broad question – What is success? What is trust? Whatever kinda the big question is that’s relevant to the session you’re talking about. And then it sounds like you’re starting big and really getting bigger.

CM: Exactly. You’re asking questions that make the ideas bigger, that draw people out, that help them ideate, help them get insight, help them be inspired by the ideas.

Int: Is there a concern when you get that big that, two things: one, that you lose the tie back to the original topic because you’re getting so large, and also a concern about time, that in a session where you kinda need to watch the clock a little bit, how do you balance that against the time requirement?

CM: Well, first of all, the group is invested in the outcome. If you have designed the session well, you’re grabbing something that they’re really invested in, so they’re going to help you. The group is going to help you say on topic. They’re going to bring it back to you.

You’ll have the people who are very linear, who are raising their hands and saying, “Can we get back to…?”

Int: Right.

CM: So the group almost becomes a self-policing kind of environment. And as a facilitator, we have some responsibility to help that.

Int: Sure.

CM: The thing that I find is that if we give people a context (“We have ten minutes for this conversation”), they’ll do it. We are all really, really conscious of time. If you don’t give people a framework, you will get the people who are more indirect communicators who will go off and, you know, go on and on and on and on.

But I find that if you share the process with the group, and you help them understand what the container is that you’re working in, they will really help you and they will work within that container. Especially if you are in a work environment because, you know, we’re all really conscious of the clock, and we have that ability.

To hear the rest of the conversation, head to our audiocasts page. This snippet appears around the ten-minute mark.

You can listen to other conversations there as well, on a variety of leadership development, team-building, and other topics.


Eliciting Meaning Through Visuals…and Pantyhose?

Eliciting Meaning ... through pantyhose?In a recent Tuesday Topics call, we sat down with Christine Martell to talk about why visuals work. As a part of that conversation, Martell talked about the common ways to use images: conveying and organizing meaning. She then went on to contrast how VisualsSpeak uses images, with eliciting meaning. Here’s an excerpt:

Interviewer:It seems like the two categories that we’ve talked about so far, conveying meaning and organizing meaning, are really kind of similar in the sense that these are visuals that are picked to represent some bit of pre-established meaning that’s already there.

But those by themselves are not the only way to use visuals. I know that in the context of VisualsSpeak, a lot of the work that the tools are designed to do and that you’ve done there is really about an entirely different purpose altogether.

CM: Yeah. What we’re working with is eliciting meaning.

Int: How is that different?

CM: Well, eliciting meaning is using the ability of images to spark associations. So we’re saying, “Okay, we know that can happen. We know that we can pull things from people’s long-term memory if we show them something that reminds them of an experience they’ve had.” And we’re using images to optimize that.

Let me give you an example of someone else who does it.

Int: That would be helpful.

CM: There’s a guy [who was] working out of Harvard named Gerald Zaltman. He was working with doing this – he calls it metaphor elicitation. What he does is that he invites people to come into his lab and they have a topic. One I remember distinctly – this was years ago – they were doing research with duPont on pantyhose, women’s pantyhose.

So they asked women to come into the lab and bring images that they found around in magazines or books that evoked or reminded them of something about pantyhose.

What they do then is scan those images into the computer, and they sit with a graphic designer, who then talks with them about what these images mean. And they actually manipulate the images on the screen to make them bigger or smaller. They kind of work with them to create a collage that expresses their ideas about the topic.

So the thing that was really interesting to me was that when they did this research, what they discovered was that there was this feeling that some women got about feeling more beautiful or more elegant when they were wearing pantyhose. Which I cannot personally imagine because I think they’re torture devices. (Laughs)

Int: You don’t work for duPont, however.

CM: No, no I don’t.

But there was this large percentage of women who did feel that way. And they discovered that through this process that they went through, that they kept hearing little bits and pieces of that idea. So when they fed that back to duPont, they then realized that was something they could use in their marketing, and we began seeing [responsive ads]. [All based on ideas elicited from the images.]

For the whole interview, head to our audiocasts page. Don’t forget to sign up for our next free, monthly Tuesday Topics call!


A Problem with Fad Leadership Development

In our October Tuesday Topics call, we interviewed Aaron Munter, a co-developer of our Developing Great Leaders leadership development toolset. Among other topics, he talked about one of the problems with fad leadership development tools, and how his work attempts to get past that. Here’s an excerpt:

AM: Between these six [leadership development] focus areas of the transition [to leadership], inward leadership, project leadership , team leadership, organizational leadership, and interpersonal leadership, they kind of set up a framework to cover the waterfront of leadership development and I think that’s where we get to the comprehensive piece that we were talking about earlier [about needing a tool to take a more comprehensive approach].

Interviewer: So it sounds like you were looking to kind of create a map of the world of leadership development.

AM: Yeah, I think so. I mean, we started, when we started looking at this, we started by really surveying what people are thinking about and writing on this topic, and what is the research showing at this moment, and we really looked broadly. We wanted to be as holistic as we could.

I think a lot of the fad kind of leadership development is very targeted: “Pick one of these things,” like leveraging strengths and weaknesses. So they’ll do a whole leadership development thing around strengths and weaknesses.

Well, that’s OK. That’s certainly a piece of the whole. But as we were talking about, that’s only a very small piece of a very large whole. So that, I think, can be dangerous to focus on to the exclusion of everything else.

Interviewer: Well, it just seems that leadership development is kind of a lifelong process and it’s not a one-time event. So some of these programs, they’re not necessarily bad; they’re just not everything. Sometimes I think they’re pitched as, “this is the answer for all of your leadership development woes,” and it’s really just “this is one more piece to help your leaders develop.” I know myself that I’ll never be finished with leadership development. What about you?

AM: Absolutely not, and I think that’s a great point.

For the whole interview, head to our audiocasts page. You’ll find this excerpt around 30 minutes into the call.


How Facilitation is like Cooking

CookingOver the last several months, I’ve increasingly taken up cooking. And the more I’ve done that, the more it seems analogous to the world of facilitation. See if you agree:

There are planners and there are improvisers. In the kitchen, I tend to be a recipe-follower. I get all the things I need for the ingredients out (my mise en place), then get the act of cooking itself. My spouse, on the other hand, is an improviser — where whatever seems like it will go together does, and a recipe is inspirational more than something to follow. In a facilitation, the same is true. There are those who plan everything out in advance, and those who figure out a framework and then riff on it.

Even for the planner, the unexpected happens. In the room of a facilitation, the conversation takes an unexpected turn. People begin to share, and who knows where it goes from there? In the kitchen, the same kind of thing can happen. Case in point: making a souffle the other day, I beat those egg whites within an inch of their lives, and couldn’t get them to peak correctly. Either way, you need to be able to flexibly reach your goals by adapting to what’s going on.

The best results come when everyone is satisfied. I may love to cook tomatoes and put them into dishes, but I know that my spouse isn’t a big fan of cooked tomatoes. When I focus my energies on things we both enjoy eating, everybody is more satisfied, and the outcome is better. Similarly, bringing a group toward consensus in a facilitation context is going to be a stronger outcome (and one more likely to survive over time) than one dictated by the opinion of the facilitation — or by that of a particularly dominating participant.

There are experts, but everyone can do it. Not everybody can be Ferran Adria (or Thomas Keller, etc), but almost anybody can get into a kitchen and give it a whirl. The result may not be a novel and inspired bit of culinary artistry, but it could be delicious and satisfying. Similarly, it takes real skill to be a great facilitator, but anybody in a team or organization can dip their toe in the water. If we spent more time teaching kids how to mediate disputes, we’d all be better facilitators today (but that’s a blog post for another day).

The journey is the reward. Well, okay, perhaps the result is pretty good, too. But for the facilitator (and hopefully, the participants), it is just as important (if not more so) how you got to the result. The process of effective facilitation is one that is in itself transformational. In the kitchen, for the cook, the same can be true. The tactile and tangible process of taking raw ingredients and transforming them into a dish can be wondrous!

I’m sure there are more similarities, but these were the ones that flashed in my head while making the aforementioned souffle last weekend. Maybe over a zucchini and sausage marinara sauce, I can come up with some others…


Visuals and Multi-Cultural Environments

Culture is everywhere!A few months ago, in our July 2010 Tuesday Topics call, Christine talked about “Why Visuals Work.” As a part of that call, one of the listeners asked a question about multi-cultural environments. Here’s a snippet of that interview:

Interviewer: What role can visuals play? How do they work differently, or better or less effectively with people in multicultural environments, as we all seem to find ourselves in today?

Christine: Well, we’ve done a lot of work with the images in a cross-cultural context. We developed them specifically to help with some of these issues. So one of the ways it does it is [by] really help[ing] level language difference. You know, because when everyone has a different native language that they speak, and they’re oftentimes required to speak in English—which could be their fourth or fifth language—the images really help. They help kind of keep the ideas and save them.

What I mean is that you put the ideas down on the table and they’re there. And you have those artifacts to help you talk about them. So you’re not necessarily sitting there translating in your head or thinking about what you’re going to say because it’s there, it kinda sits there. So it gives you the ability to listen more fully to the other people in your group. We hear a lot of stories about that.

We see a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily share because they’re uncomfortable with their language abilities or whatever, share much more freely and they’re more fluent when they’re speaking from the images. It’s really pretty amazing to see.

Int: Is that in part because they’re describing something that they can then use as a reference as they’re describing it?

Christine: Yeah, I think that’s part of it, absolutely. And also it’s just more concrete. You know you’re making ideas more concrete by taking a visual image and putting it on the table. And it frequently is easier to describe things that have some kind of concreteness than something that is very abstract.

Int: I’m sure we could do an entire call about this, but are there specific kinds of cultures that respond in different kinds to ways to the images? Things that you’ve noticed through the process?

Christine: Absolutely. You’re right that’s a whole huge other call. Absolutely they respond very differently. You see the real cultural difference come forward, which is one of the things that’s really amazing and awesome. You see the ways in which they construct meaning very, very differently.

And those are all the things that kind of come out when you are doing VisualsSpeak sessions. As you go around the table, all those kind of ideas and different ways of looking at the world are put on the table and are being talked about. So even if the person isn’t currently living in another culture, or they’re a second-generation or whatever, you start to see some of those differences.

And you know it’s changing a lot because we’re working in multicultural environments. So it’s not as distinct as it would have been twenty years ago, when people were pretty much staying in their native cultures and it was rare to have people being global citizens. Whereas now, you’re seeing this melding of culture of origin and the cultures that they’re working in. Oftentimes, the organizational culture becomes very important, and it supercedes some of those personal culture kinds of aspects.

For the whole interview, head to our audiocasts page. You’ll find this excerpt around 38 minutes into the call.