Picture this: you’re on vacation on a beautifully exotic island surrounded by lush greenery miles away from gnarly traffic jams and endless to-do lists. In the distance you can hear waves gently lapping on the beach. The smell of salt and sand fills your lungs. Can you picture the scene in your mind?
Now imagine being in front of an audience of bigwigs about to give an important presentation on key strategies for success. Think of the words you’re going to say. Can you see the actual letters forming in your head?
If it’s easier for you to conjure up images of swaying palm trees and coconut drinks than it is to envisions words or sentences, you’re not alone.
A new study by Harvard researchers suggests that humans are more prone to “visual thinking” than they are “verbal thinking.” It’s easier for people to generate visual images of a thing than it is to see words or sentences in their minds.
The study, led by Harvard psychologist Elinor Amit and Evelina Fedorenko of Harvard Medical School, found that even when they were prompted to use verbal thinking, people created visual images to accompany their inner speech.
In the study, researchers used a series of behavioral and fMRI tests to determine how people “think”. In the behavioral experiment, participants received a prompt and were asked to either silently generate a sentence or create a visual image in their mind. They were then asked to judge the vividness of the resulting representation, and of the potentially accompanying representation in the other format. In the fMRI experiment, participants were asked to recall a sentence or image, and then placed in an imaging machine to monitor their brain activity.
“We found that people…generated visual images regardless of whether their intent was to visualize something or to think verbally,” Amit said.
Visual thinking, scientists suggests, seems to be more ingrained in the primitive parts of our brains perhaps because of the relatively late appearance of language in human development.
This may explain why otherwise healthy people find themselves “at a loss for words” or struggling to find the right things to say. As a writer and professionally-trained speaker, it comes as no surprise that I think in words. There’s a gaggle of them floating through my mind at any given time. My friends and clients, on the other hand, tell me they tend to think in pictures. They hire me to help them write their talks and speeches because, as they say, they “just can’t find the right words” to say. If the tendency for most people is to think in visual images, it’s no wonder folks get tongue-tied when they speak. It’s not the way human brains are hard-wired.
That’s not to say, however, there aren’t ways to overcome our seemingly ingrained habits. If you want to be a better speaker, you have to create a rich arsenal of words. To do that, you have to flex your verbal thinking. Here are a few ways to do that.
Here’s an interesting point the Harvard scientists make about visual versus verbal thinking:
“An asymmetry was observed between inner speech and visual imagery. In particular, inner speech was engaged to a greater extent during verbal than visual thought, but visual imagery was engaged to a similar extent during both modes of thought. Thus, it appears that people generate more robust verbal representations during deliberate inner speech compared to when their intent is to visualize.”
The word to note in the paragraph above is the word deliberate. That means being intentional, purposeful, being prepared. When we deliberately think about what we want to communicate, we encounter less stumbling blocks. In fact, as researchers note, “people generate more robust verbal representations during deliberate inner speech.”
There’s a reason the old adage “Think before you speak” still persists. Being thoughtful about the words you choose goes a long way. So before you step out in front of an audience (whether it’s an audience of one or 1,000), think about the key points you want to make. And then consciously think about the words you want to use to make those points land.
Write It Out
The best speakers, like the best stand-up comedians, are also good writers.
In this New York Times interview, legendary comedian Jerry Seinfeld discusses how he developed a Pop-Tart joke, a grueling two-year-long process that began with handwritten words on reams of yellow legal paper.
“I’m looking for the connective tissue that gives me a really tight link, like a jigsaw puzzle,” Seinfeld says in the interview. “If it’s too long, if it’s just a split second too long, (I) will shave letters off of words. You count syllables.”
Great presenters do what great comedians: they write out their material. They think about their audience, the words they’re going to use and the order in which they’re going to be delivered. They edit and refine. Sometimes the material is delivered on stage, sometimes it isn’t. Either way, they write it down.
The best way to think about words is to say the words – over and over again. Great speakers, like great performers, memorize their scripts and rehearse. They rehearse until the words are embedded in their bones.
It sounds counterintuitive but rehearsing your words and committing them to memory frees you up to be spontaneous. It gives you the latitude to improvise if necessary, because once you know the words, you won’t be fumbling for what to say. You can pivot and adjust.