Tossing and turning

by anketroeder

2010-04-25_coin

Some meandering thoughts on why we often understand so much less than we see.

[This is long. If you want the learnings only, skip it all and go straight to the very last paragraph. If, like me, you enjoy the stroll more than the cake at the end, bear with me. And thank you for the company. Maybe we can share the cake after all, when we come to it.]

Currently there are quite a few discussions going on about the relevance of images in presentations. I think they come not a moment too soon. I think many of us were beginning to get uneasy with the way things were going. The strange thing is, while there is a second slide revolution on the way, in many meeting rooms, at least here in Smallville, the first wave has not even begun to hit.

But that is a different story.

Over at PowerPointNinja is an excellent, concrete and easy to implement article on what can go wrong with images in a presentation that leaves me free to ramble and meander on a few other things on my mind right now.

I firmly believe in images. I also firmly believe in words.

I also believe that text and image is the same, the two sides of a coin, and when you toss your idea out to your audience,?? sometimes images will win, and sometimes words.

It does not really matter how I express my idea: with a metaphor, through a story, or using a picture. For what else is an image but a story? And when has a word ever been just a word and not a whole world? Everything is connected, and we as presenters need to make the connections clear.

Personally, maybe because I was a writer first and I only began to take photographs much later in life, I firmly believe that if in doubt, go for the word.

We all know there are some images, paintings, photographs that leave you breathless. We all have seen images that made us cry,?? that will stay inside our minds forever.

There are images we will never let go off. There are images that cling to every fiber of our bodies and our dreams. Trauma therapy has begun using Tetris to help make these images disappear. It is hard work to make someone unsee an image, if not impossible.

There are images that touch you and make you wish you had those memories to hold on to,?? like Phillip Toledano???s quiet and loving Days with my Father.

But these are not the images I am talking about here.

I find these are images that should not be used in a board room to sell an issue. I find these are images that deserve respect, space and time.

In our day-to-day presentations, most of us use different, more profane images to illustrate our points,?? often stock photography,?? and these images need to work in the context of what we say, or what we don???t say, and often they need to work fast.

And that means we must choose carefully. We need to think about the relationship between what we say and what we show, and more importantly, we must give up the false belief that any image says more that a thousand words. It simply doesn???t. That was what prompted my brief post over at speakingaboutpresenting.com?? this week.

An image can be many things, but it is never, and has never, been just that: an image. It is always a narration and you will always have to work out which story it wants to tell you today, because the story will shift and change with your mood and the light.

Humpty Dumpty had a way with words.

It???s all a question of who is master, he said. He would make them work hard but he would pay them extra. I have always loved the idea of a string of words lining up on Saturdays to receive their pay. I always wondered if they???d bring hot tea and sandwiches.

I often wish Mr. Dumpty had left some equally sound advice on images. For no matter what you pay them, no matter how hard you make them work, images will always dance to a rhythm of their own, and quite often any accompanying words may find it hard not to step on their partner???s toes.

Images always seem to be one beat ahead. They are always on the move. Maybe it is because they have come such a long way, from the first cave paintings, from the first dark dream under a savannah sky.

We too have come a long way.

Even though we are literally bombarded by images today, many of us have lost their visual literacy. We cannot read the images anymore that we surround ourselves with day in, day out, but we expect everyone else to understand them, including ourselves.

In the Middle Ages, a painting was filled with references that are all but lost today. The Medieval Christian painters could rely on their wealthy and educated audience to follow their symbolic story.

Today we are losing our religion (or never had one, which is perfectly fine with me, because Christian art is just an academic example here), and as a result we are losing the story.

No matter if we are watching LOST or reading Neil Gaiman???s Sandman for the first time: we constantly need to check for references, we need an annotated wonderland.

Hypertext to the rescue! Augmented reality ??? where are you?

Ok, so the blue dress stands for the virgin Mary, okay, yes, I get that. Blue is easy. But that bunch of violets represents Mary too? Really? Why? And what about the gargoyles? What the hell do they mean?

We have lost other languages on the way. A bouquet of flowers once was a poem, a love letter, today it is something to picked up in the super market on the way home.

No longer do we hear the honeysuckle sigh.

Walking through a 19th century exhibition without some text to guide you has become like walking through a foreign city. You may walk the streets, but you do not hear the voices of all those who walked these streets before you. You may see buildings, but they remain buildings without a soul. Occasionally you may feel the comforting whispering of a ghost.

We have lost our frame of reference. We have become the white rabbit that has lost its watch.

We upload our lives as digital blueprints as if to assure ourselves there must be some outer meaning to our lives. Images have become our lifelines, our tools of communication. Flickr and Facebook have become our comfort zone.

Words are on the run, it seems. In presentation land, we discuss tools and techniques and slides, we move from PowerPoint to Prezi, from text slide to image slide.

Rarely do we discuss words anymore. Rarely do we stop to think if the images we are using help or hinder our messages, if our words and images go hand in hand. We trust our images to say it all. But they don???t. And why should they, in the first place?

Images do not say more than a thousand words anymore. I believe they never have.

An image will only say what it wants to say. Stubborn animals, images are. In that, again, they are are very much like words. My favorite pet zoo. But they are friendly creatures and leave themselves wide open for interpretation.

I believe Humpty Dumpty was wrong when he said, it is all a question of who is master.

I believe it is all a question of who is listening. Images and words are brothers and sisters, they are one of a kind, and b
oth are alive and breathing.

  • Every image is an invitation to see.
  • Every word is an invitation to dance.

So maybe it is time to stop making images work quite so hard for us and time to start paying them a little respect and listen to them more carefully.

  • Use images. By all means. But use fewer, and better ones, and make sure they go hand in hand with your message.
  • Do not contradict your images unless contradiction is a purposeful strategy.
  • Don???t scram a hundred image slides in ten minutes. Leave everyone some space to breathe.
  • Not every word you say must be visualized. Learn how to paint pictures inside people???s?? minds.
  • Sometimes, no slide may be the best slide of all. For when the projector breaks down, you still need to be able to paint in the dark.
  • A word can mean more than one thing. An image will always refuse to be tied down to exactly one meaning. Even the cheapest snapshot will hold more than you bargained for. Like with a looking glass, there is at least one more layer beyond what we think we can perceive.
  • So in a presentation, do not expect your audience to see what you see or to hear what you wanted to say. They may have already stepped through the looking glass and left you far behind.

Or, in a nutshell: Say exactly what you want to say. And choose your images wisely.

Let???s learn how to dance with our slides.