The term “visualization” is a misnomer. And so is “visual aids.” Visualization isn’t just visual and visual aids aren’t just for speakers.
The more my writing life intermingles with my speaking life, the more the lines between the two skill sets blur. (See How Public Speaking Can Make You a Better Writer.) There are more similarities than differences when it comes to sparking audiences’ imaginations. And, though it sounds counter-intuitive, there’s a lot writers can apply from the concept of a visual aid.
Visualization Isn’t Just Visual
We think of ourselves as painting pictures with words. Again, the bias towards our audience’s sight obstructs the meaning. For instance, if you want readers to think of a campfire, do you want them to form a mental picture of logs arranged in a radius with orange flames licking out of them? Or would you rather them to remember sitting by a campfire with the acrid smell stinging their nostrils or eyes? The smell of something delicious cooking? The taste of s’mores? The warmth of the flame during a chilly night? The magic of being away from all the indoor pursuits and enjoying the company of family or friends? Visualization isn’t just visual.
Visualization manages readers’ expectations.
When I was known as “The Science Lady” at my kids’ elementary school, I would go in classrooms to demonstrate fun scientific principles to the kids. My favorite involved blindfolding a volunteer, cutting an orange in half, and letting them smell it. Then I’d offer them something to drink—milk. The kids would always respond with surprise or even disgust. When they were expecting an orange, most kids hated the milk.
Just as our olfactory sense prepares our taste buds for what is to come, our words to manage our readers’ expectations of what they are about to digest. Writers can present the landscape much like a screenplay, letting them see every detail or focus their “visualization” on the part of the story we want them to conjure up. Our words become precision optics.
Visualization engages the imagination.
Good visual aids, like good writing, engage the imagination. In one of my favorite books, Talk Like Ted: the 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the Worlds Top Minds, Carmine Gallo asserts that “It is all about storytelling.” Since storytelling is my passion, I didn’t need much convincing, but Gallo backs up his premise with new brain research. Through functional MRI scans, researchers have discovered that our brains are more active when we hear stories.
I believe that’s because stories activate the imagination. Readers wonder what will happen next. They wonder what they would do, or how the facts apply to their situation. That engagement is like a hook, but not just for its ability to grab. As we engage readers’ imaginations, their neurons fire, embedding that hook (in a nice, painless way) and keeping them with our stories.
Good visualization engages the emotions as well.
Engaging the imagination can engage emotions as well. Take, for instance, neuroanatomist, Dr. Jill Taylor, one of the first TED Speakers to have her talk go viral. She uses a visual aid, but it’s far from visually appealing. Dr. Taylor uses a human brain, complete with 17” on spinal cord attached. It affects listeners’ visceral sense and their emotions much more than it affects their sight. Though she disgusts her listeners, she grabs their attention as well as their emotions. Particularly with teens, it makes a memorable moment, as she holds that brain aloft and tells them, “This is your brain. This is your instrument. This is your power.” (See Dr. Taylor’s TedEx Youth talk.)
When her listeners’ emotions are involved, her words, like that brain she holds out, have power.
It goes beyond “Show Don’t Tell.”
Without question, “Show, Don’t Tell” makes writing better. In fact, Dennis G. Jerz does a great job of illustrating how showing engages not only the senses, but also readers’ emotions in his Show, Don’t (Just) Tell post
But it’s not all craft. That kind of writing comes naturally when we write with passion. That passion, like an attention grabbing prop, engages readers’ senses and their imagination. As important as all the craft of writing well is, so it the art of pouring a bit of yourself onto the page.
Words act as visual aids.
We can’t hold a human brain under our readers noses, but, through our words, we can accomplish what good visual aids do. We can engage our readers’ imaginations–and that can be quite a gift.