Persuasion, Zest

Find the Right Images for Your Next Presentation

We are all familiar with the idea that a picture tells a thousand words. It’s become a bit of a cliché, but a century after that phrase was first coined, it’s still true. Pictures and images can narrate an entire story, so it’s vital that you present attractive, focused, and relevant visuals for the message you’re trying to convey.

Are You Image Conscious?

OMG! Is that a spot? There - just to the side of your nose? It's gross; it's disgusting, and you're probably having second thoughts about leaving the house - at least not without an industrial sized tub of foundation slathered over your waxy visage. 

At best, you'll be burning with shame and embarrassment as everyone you come into contact with, politely tries not to stare at the throbbing beacon. At worst you'll be treated as if you have communicable disease, with co-workers speculating whether you have a new variant of the black death, or if you're the first carrier of the zombie plague.

And of course it's much more than simply vanity. It's about the image of yourself that you're putting out into the world, it’s how people relate to you and how you relate to them.
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Honestly, I just need to change my pillowcase 
(Picture: AMC) 

The Power of Visual Learning

Some people are better at taking in information by hearing it spoken out loud, others have a better chance at processing it if they see it written down in black and white on an A4 sheet of paper noisily ejected from a dot matrix printer like it's still 1986. Good for them! They're ideally suited to surviving the business environment after the zombie apocalypse when all technology has failed. However, these resilient individuals are in the minority, with 60% of people professing themselves to be visual learners.

What this means for you is that text presentations simply won't cut it anymore. With most of your colleagues likely to be visual learners, words, concepts, and ideas are more likely to be retained if they are backed up by an image, and stored in the long term memory. Studies by researchers have shown that people retain around 65% of visual information compared to a meagre 10 - 20% of what they have either read or heard. Images can transmit information faster and improve understanding.
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Words? I haven't seen these since I left School 
(Picture: Flickr) 
There's the added bonus that images can tap straight into your subconscious and trigger emotions, without even having disturbed the thinking part of your brain. 

I’m not suggesting that you should make your co-workers feel sad about sales figures by linking the numbers with an image of a vulture waiting for a malnourished child to die, but the potential is there if you choose to use the power of pictures for evil rather than good.

We live in that fortunate window between the advent of ubiquitous electronic devices and their ultimate failure due to the collapse of civilisation. This means that creating, curating, and displaying images has never been easier!

What Makes a Great Image?

Presumably you've been stuck in a doctor's waiting room at some point in your life. If not, I suggest you go now - that spot is starting to look really nasty. Usually there'll be a pile of National Geographic or Time magazines, and if you rummage for a while, the probability approaches 100% that you'll find one which lists the best photos ever taken. 

They're compelling, they're breathtakingly beautiful regardless of their subject matter, and more often than not you'll engage with them on some kind of emotional level.
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And you thought Danny in Sales was competitive!
(Picture: Don Gutoski / Natural History Museum) 
But what actually makes them great, prize-winning photographs capable of holding your attention for minutes on end as you study the detail and the stark play of light and shadow?

Photographers can tell you that there are a few basic rules which make them and their art stand out from the hordes of iphone wielding amateurs flooding instagram and facebook with heavily filtered pictures of landscapes and faces. There's a structure that they adhere to whether taking war photos, landscapes or tasteful baby snaps.

What they mainly talk about is a picture's composition - the basic structure which makes it grab your eye from a distance and prevent you looking away. It's that the colours stand out. It's that the shapes stand out. It's that the shadows and the light are balanced. All of these combine to grab hold of your eyeball and forcibly pull you into the shot. And once you're in there, then and only then, do the details of what you're being shown become important.

Think of the film Schindler's List, specifically the stark black and white footage contrasted with the red of the girl’s coat. Spielberg used this device to focus our attention and emotion on this one child amid the chaos of events around her. And visually this contrast also makes us more acutely aware of other details of scene: The winter uniforms of the nazis, the armbands and everyday clothes of their prisoners and, most significantly, the grim reality of what's being represented on screen.
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You can't help but be drawn into the scene
(Picture: Janusz Kamiński / Amblin Entertainment) 

Images to Hold Attention

It's a serious question, and one which companies spend huge chunks of their marketing budget attempting to answer. It has also been, up until recently, almost impossible to answer in any kind of meaningful way. Market research questionnaires have always been of dubious value, and while eye tracking software can tell you what areas of the screen people are looking at, it's doubtful that your co-workers would appreciate this technological intrusion merely to check how they are engaging with your presentation.
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Stop looking at me and watch the screen, Jan. No, there’s nothing wrong with my face.
(Picture: L F / flickr) 
Fortunately, a lot of the guesswork has been taken out of the process by streaming TV behemoth, Netflix, who in 2014, began an experiment to find out which images made viewers want to find out more about one of their shows.

Netflix has a whole range of tools at their disposal to see what you're up to when flicking through endless lists of sitcoms and movies, and they noticed that people spent an average of 1.2 seconds considering each programme. That's not enough time to read the description, and only barely enough time to locate the title. No. Viewers only looked at the image when choosing whether to binge on Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. The images are all designed by professionals and they all have great composition. So what makes the difference?

For Netflix, it was easy to find out whether an image is serving its purpose of pulling people in. It's simple - they A/B and even C/D and E/F test them. They change all or aspects of the images and count whether a greater or lesser number of people decide to watch.

What they found was that people like pictures with fewer than four people in them. Having more than three people to focus on is simply far too complex, especially when being viewed on a smaller screen. Having details to look at is great - just not too many.

Emotions are great, too. Especially complex ones, so if you're planning to have people's face in your presentation, it should go without saying that you're better off steering away from the stoical, the serious and the bland. Puzzlement is good. As is sadness and, somewhat paradoxically, an image of an excruciatingly bored person could help keep your audience engaged.
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Now there's a man engaged in his job (but his hand isn't actually holding that sword!)
(Picture: Legendary Pictures) 

Visual Language

If you actively use a social network, you'll be exposed to thousands of images, hundreds of videos, scores of screenshots, dozens of texts, tens of infographics, and at least one graph every day. Keeping up with what's happening in your extended social network can be both a blessing and a chore, as you're relentlessly bombarded with the latest goings-on in your school friends' lives, and outrageous political and religious beliefs are forced down your throat. 

If you’re assimilating the news that someone you haven't spoken to in 15 years has had a baby, a photo of the new mother and her offspring communicates that quite nicely. Pushy political posts usually have a photograph and an unsourced, misattributed broad statement. Religious posts tend to be multi-panel cartoons. And then there are the memes. Dawkins could never have dreamed that the simple model of the way ideas spread could have been so corrupted. While memes can be genuinely funny and original, they are often repeated, recycled and reused.

All of these visual content types have their uses in effectively communicating what you want to say. But it's a mistake to overuse one type. Imagine if Facebook was just baby photos, or memes.
No matter how much you want your co-workers to like you (despite the growth which now seems to be necrotising on your face), remember that you're not actually a standup comedian. Making people laugh is great - it shows that they're engaged with what you're showing them, but you can't effectively impart information using only memes and comic strips. The purpose of using images should always be to help you communicate complex concepts in an appealing way, and to evoke emotions which connect your audience with a particular concept or idea. 

Likewise, aside from using images of starving children to make your co-workers feel bad, the images you use usually be relevant to what you're telling them, or else you run the risk of distracting them while they wonder what it is that you're trying to get across. If you're making a presentation on the company's workplace romance policy, using pictures of Afghanistan era Soviet tanks, no matter how expertly framed, would probably not help to get the message through. 

And so, we swing back to memes again - for the simple reason that a picture on its own does very little to communicate a detailed message. Sure it'll make the message a lot more memorable, it can hook your audience in straight away, keep them interested, and even get them emotionally involved, but to communicate a solid message which they can take away with them, at some point you're going to have to add text to at least some of those images. The social media memes execute this perfectly. The text is short, in an easily readable typeface, relevant, and relatable

Different Strokes

Ah! the all-important caveat. You knew it was coming, didn't you? Remember, 60% of people are visual learners so making time to find the right visuals will be well worth the effort. Now, you can’t please all the people all the time but that isn’t a license to ignore them! 40% of a typical audience will engage in a variety of other ways – some prefer to read, others to listen. 

To cater for these recalcitrant individuals who refuse to be convinced by your stunning visuals alone you're going to need to back up the visuals with some good old-fashioned tree pulp or pixels for them to read, and make sure your narration is up to the job. 

It goes without saying (but I will anyway!) - this combination of images, sound and text is a major reason why video is such a persuasive form of communication.
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I think we're losing them!
(Picture: Dan Mills / flickr) 

One other thing that the Netflix research throws up is that the criteria for an attention-keeping image are not universal - even across what we think of as the western world. Germans seem to like arty pictures when choosing a film while in the United States viewers prefer to get a clear sense of the plot. To a certain extent, you may have to experiment before you find the images which will keep your audience on the edge of their seat, but ultimately, it will pay off.

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Paul Brannigan

Paul is the founder and creative director of Nudj. He has many years experience working in business video and television. He is a Bafta nominated writer and director with a passion for psychology. He is also a trained hypnotist and always keeps a fob watch handy - you have been warned!