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The Psychological Power of Imagery

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

This line, along with many in Martin Luther King’s historic speech on August 28th 1963, was one which was met with rapturous applause. While just a mere excerpt, it captures immense power, emotion and tangibility. This speech, crafted with poetic precision, had been soaked up by all who were present that day and caused vibrations around the world. And these vibrations, of course, can still be felt.

It was a speech that was charged with purpose. It pleaded for social reform. Its message was, by itself, incredibly powerful – and it was made even more so by the influential use of imagery. Throughout, King colourises his message and transmits sharp images to us. Skilfully, he presents two images side-by-side in the sentence above, juxtaposed to starkly contrast with each other thereby strengthening his message further. There is power in imagery.

Imagery appeals to our senses and evokes a rich experience for us, triggering memories, visions and fantasies. In fact, a well-placed image often increases our likelihood of remembering information; a study at Georgia State University in 2016 tested the recall ability of 102 participants. It was found that words which carried rich and detailed imagery were more likely to be remembered than words that carried little to no imagery. What’s more, the researchers found that detailed images with unique, personally meaningful characteristics protected against the creation of false memories (in other words, memories which one believes are true but are fabrications of events that never took place).

Not only are images functional for our understanding and memory, but they inspire and energise. Vision boards, for example, are a widely used technique to bolster an individual in the pursuit of and commitment to their goals. In recent years, much more attention has been devoted to enhancing the aesthetic of working spaces (either in the office or at home), which has led to an increase in motivation, productivity, satisfaction and even wellbeing. King’s speech didn’t just evoke emotions in those who listened, but instigated action.

This all converges at a critical, underlying point: when used properly, imagery is an incredibly powerful and influential tool to have at your disposal. Speeches and presentations at work will be injected with more passion from the use of well-placed imagery. Not only will they be communicated with a little more gusto, but they will strike the listener with more impact. Lucid images and metaphor can even reduce the chances of misinterpretation when peppered into the messages we convey. If we’re championing an idea or driving forward with innovation, imagery also holds great significance; painting a positive hypothetical picture of what an organisation might look like five years after a radical idea is implemented is an indispensable and proven technique used to earn buy-in from others.

Before injecting all speeches, pitches and presentations with imagery, however, it helps to be selective. Writers steer clear of clichés and tired metaphors, as should we. Can you remember an instance when you read something with imagery that deeply moved you? It’s likely that that was crafted from scratch and bespoke to the message it sat within. When we recycle phrases like “raise the bar” or “get the ball rolling”, they may risk sounding dull or unimaginative and they are much less likely to conjure in others the imagery of raising a bar or rolling a ball at all. But be careful; too far the other way can render an image completely disjunct and irrelevant to the message being conveyed. If King had said “Now is the time to rise from the matte black hatchback of segregation to the four-door, luxury, sunrise-red saloon of racial justice”, it may have raised a few eyebrows and completely undermined the importance of the message. Likewise, imagery should be accessible, culturally sensitive, and non-offensive. There is a sweet spot, and often it helps to test it with others before launch.

Hitting this sweet spot unlocks doors; not only does imagery render messages more clear and less likely to be misconstrued, but it enables us to overcome social barriers. As we charge forward towards a more equal, diverse, and inclusive society, imagery holds weight. Powerful imagery unites people; it is itself a universal language. King recognised this. He harnessed it, finessed it, and is continuing long after the momentous day of August 28th 1963 to usher us down the sunlit path of racial justice.


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