Get Those Word Pictures Flowing Like a Rushing River

“Can you give me an example of a word picture?”

The question almost always comes with that scrunched up confused look on one’s face. You know the look. The eyes squint, the mouth purses as the jaw sets. Lines appear on each side of the nose.

“Word picture? What’s that?!” A formal definition is not much help. Here it is: “A vivid description in writing.”

That’s not really what I’m looking for when I ask a person to use more word pictures in his/her presentation.

It’s nearly a communication art form when done well.

A well-versed word picture artist can weave a tapestry of vivid descriptions that anyone within reach of the sound of his or her voice can instantly relate to, recognize and visualize.

Using word pictures is an area I struggle. So, I try to be on the lookout for great examples.

I share an example in my book, Sweating Bullets:

The hurricane documentary had returned and the images on the screen were of a large, four-engine prop airplane with a large disc mounted under its belly. Mack turned up the volume out of curiosity. The narrator explained the P3 Turboprop was flown into the eye of the hurricane to record data. The pilot of the plane was being interviewed.

“It’s kinda like driving an eighteen-wheeler,” NOAA Pilot, Commander Phil Kenul said as he appeared on screen, “with a couple flat tires, bad suspension, potholed road, ninety miles an hour without any headlights at midnight. That gives you an idea. Mix that up with a really bad elevator ride, and you know what it can be like.”

Yes! That is a word picture just about anyone can relate to, visualize and recognize.

Then, last night I spotted another example.

Not as great as Commander Phil Kenul, but still worth noting. I had to buy replacement heads for an electric razor. I flipped the box over to look at the back to be sure it was the right fit and here are the words that caught my eye: “Every year your blades travel the height of Mt. Everest: 49 times!”


That’s something I can visualize and recognize. Two out of three ain’t bad. I don’t relate to the word picture because I’ve never climbed Everest once, let alone 49 times. But, the vivid description is much more engaging than, “Your blades rotate 30,000 times,” or whatever number of times that blade spins under the little round disc full of holes and slits.

Here are three ways to add more word pictures to your verbal tool box.

  1. Think description. Rather than giving numbers, statistics and data, think of a way to describe that information in a way everyone in your audience can readily visualize. For example, farmers love to talk about the number of acres farmed. Most people who buy food in the grocery store can’t relate to an acre. But, when I tell you an acre is about the size of a football field, “ah!” the light goes on. You can visualize a football field much easier than an acre.
  2. Make it recognizable. Go back to the example of the pilot. Pilots know how to talk technical airplane jargon. Commander Kenul could have talked about losing control of the trim, grabbing the yoke and working the rudder (that’s about the extent of my technical aircraft vocabulary). No. Instead he used descriptive examples just about any viewer can recognize. Driving on a pot-hole-filled road is something just about everyone has experienced.
  3. Relevance is a must. The descriptive word picture must make sense to the audience. Another way to put it: Keep your word pictures simple. A complex word picture will leave the audience members scratching their heads. If you start crafting a word picture and the words, “that might be a bit of a stretch” ever come to mind, that’s your cue to simplify.

What’s your favorite word picture? Is it one you like to use or one you’ve heard?

Dale Dixon
It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way, Michael Bay

An executive took the stage to talk about his company.

He froze up and could barely compose a complete sentence.

An officer in a publicly traded company was asked to answer questions from the board of directors.

He started sweating profusely and couldn’t speak.

A movie director took the stage for Samsung at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

He promptly left that stage exactly 60-seconds later, much to everyone’s surprise.

All are true stories. Agony doesn’t begin to describe how each of the above feel in their respective situations. We’re talking about real people dealing with real fear, anxiety and self-doubt.

The first two stories inspired Sweating Bullets. The third story shows it can happen to anyone.

If you’re going on stage, or in front of a group, here are three steps to go over in your mind as you take those bold steps.

(Didn’t Michael Bay look confident striding on stage?!)

  1. Remind yourself, “There’s a reason I’m here. I only need to be me. No one else.” Think about Bay, he truly creates stunning images on the screen. Your tastes in movies aside, he’s an expert at the craft. Within the expertise, find confidence to share your story.
  2. Tell yourself, “I’m going to have a conversation.” Bay was walking into what should have been one of the easiest gigs of his life: Talking to someone about his life’s work and creating images; answering questions about a topic of which he is an expert!
  3. Breathe. That’s right, breathe – times seven. Take seven deep breaths – counting to seven with each inhale and exhale. You’ll be amazed at what the infusion of oxygen can do to calm your nerves and clear your mind.

My heart goes out to Bay and all the others who have – and will – literally freeze up mid-sentence. I don’t care if it’s in front of hundreds at an electronics conference or a dozen at boardroom table.

It’s a horrible feeling, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Dale Dixon
Hope Is Not A Strategy

Hope is crucial for each and every person.

If you have no hope, you don’t have aspiration for a better tomorrow. No hope equates to helplessness.

However, hope is not a strategy in any situation.

This is especially true as you approach preparation for communication through presentation. If the following thoughts ever go through your mind as you prepare to take the stage, I’m going to dash your hopes:

  • “I hope people will pay attention.”
  • “I hope the technology works.”
  • “I hope I don’t forget anything.”
  • “I hope, I hope, I hope…”

Those hope statements are red flags that you are not prepared to be the best version of you as a presenter. The moment you catch yourself hoping you are ready, stop and create a strategy.

Turning hope into strategy may be as simple as turning the hopeful statements into strategy questions.

For example (using the hope statements from above):

  • “What will I do to help people pay attention?”
  • “How can I gain confidence and comfort in using the technology?”
  • “Where can I place reminders of important points?”

Now, out of those strategy questions, develop tactics.

Here’s a sample checklist based on the above evolution of hope statements to strategy questions:

  • I will find ways to be physically closer to the audience while speaking (i.e., I won’t stand behind a lectern, I’ll walk out into the audience when appropriate, I’ll position myself closer to the center of a large board room table, etc.)
  • I’ll be sure to be conversational as I speak, avoiding reading.
  • I’ll change vocal pacing, volume and inflection to help people pay attention.
  • I’ll conduct a microphone check before the audience arrives.
  • I’ll use a remote and practice running through the slides on the computer.
  • I’ll have the presentation in the cloud, on a thumb drive and a CD.
  • I’ll check to be sure the computer connects to the projector with no issues at least 60-minutes before the presentation.
  • I’ll be sure I can give the presentation if there’s a technology malfunction.
  • I’ll write on an index card, a small piece of paper or create other reminders of key points.

Turning an “I hope…” into a strategic question with a tactical checklist gives you the confidence to take the stage and present effectively.

This applies whether you're making a one-to-one sales call, speaking up at a company meeting, talking at a board meeting, or presenting to a large audience.

Dale Dixon
Turning Socks Into Practice: Storytelling, Gratitude and a Wild Design

Telling stories and making your audience priority one takes Habitual practice.

These two areas are most important for anyone who wants to make an impact through presenting.

Before you think storytelling and audience appreciation is only for the stage, think again. If you’re having a conversation with one person, that person is your audience. Pay attention to that one person’s reaction. Watch for non-verbal cues. Listen with empathy (not waiting your turn to respond).

Tell vibrant stories during conversation.

Being intentional in the areas of storytelling and audience engagement – especially when communicating with one or two people, makes for a powerful presenter.

I recently caught myself practicing the art of storytelling and audience appreciation in a simple thank you note.

Two co-workers bought me a monthly subscription to socks. These aren’t just any socks. The socks have cool names and come with a story printed on a double-sided glossy postcard. The socks are off the chart colorful. Wild designs.

Sure, I could have sent a simple thank you note or made a call. But, I had a chance to practice the craft of storytelling and making the recipient of my message feel even more special and appreciated.

Here’s the note I penned to my coworkers:

So… I was having lunch with a friend today, and I notice another guy in the restaurant is wearing “unique” socks. I think to myself: “Maybe it’s time I explore wearing something different…. Matching sock color to my pants color is boring.”

Then, I walk into my office afterwards and there’s a package on my desk. There, inside the envelope is a note from Soul Socks saying Julie and Heather have signed me up for a new pair of socks each month. And, there’s the first pair…. exactly what I wanted (but didn’t know I wanted until 60-minutes earlier). How cool!!

Your timing is impeccable. The gift is perfect (and very generous). I’m excited.. and most grateful! Thank you!!

The story contained the elements of challenge (realization I’m fashion challenged), struggle (where do I even start in choosing socks when I have a difficult enough time color coordinating every morning) and resolution (I get cool socks – delivered to my desk each month) – highly simplified.

By making a habit of storytelling and audience appreciation in the small, everyday conversations, I make it easier to be real, spontaneous and authentic from the stage.

How and when do you most enjoy telling stories?

Dale Dixon
Why We Never Say, “Here’s What I’d Like to Tell You...”

Because everyone else is doing it!

Think about it: when you are a member of an audience and the sage on the stage says something like, “Here’s what I’d like to say…” What’s your reaction?

Probably much like mine. I tune out. The phrase and any iteration of it is redundant. It’s condescending (you’re saying it, duh? Do you need to clue me in to that fact?).

So many people use this verbal crutch as they communicate a message.

If you’ve uttered those words, you are absolutely correct: It was not your intent to make your audience tune out or to be condescending. But, based on what we know about brain science and the conscious and subconscious mind and the attention span of our average audience member, every word and phrase matters.

“Here’s what I’m going to say…” is simply a signal for people to check out.

Instead, let’s be frugal with our words.

Just say what needs to be said without telling people, “Here’s what I’m going to say…”

Dale Dixon