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Tap the Power of Images in Your Presentations

presentations storytelling
a woman holds her child above her head with a sunset in the background


Of all our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.

— Walt Disney

By John Millen

Think back to a moment in your childhood, or some other special time in your life. Chances are, in your mind you see an image. It’s a mental photo capturing the essence of that moment.

Or look at the sunrise photo included here. You can feel its warmth and the joy of a mother and child in the morning sun. 

Look up from your phone, tablet or computer right now.  If you scan around your home or office you’ll probably see pictures that capture special times or a memento or an art piece that brings out a certain emotion.

The power of images in presentations

Visual images have that kind of power — the ability to evoke deep emotions, inspire and entertain us.

As human beings, we think in images. It’s why we are captivated by movies, television and the Internet. Images, not words, are what power Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube.

This makes sense since scientists have determined that the majority of our brain’s activity is dedicated to visual processing. In fact, various researchers have found that:

  • When we have our eyes open, our vision accounts for two-thirds of the electrical activity of the brain — two billion of the three billion firings per second.
  • About half of our neural tissue, that stuff that drives our nervous systems, is directly or indirectly related to vision. In fact, more of our neurons are dedicated to vision than all the other senses combined.
  • We process images in as little as 13 milliseconds, according to a recent MIT study. That’s 13/1000 of a second.

“The fact that you can do that at these high speeds indicates to us that what vision does is find concepts. That’s what the brain is doing all day long — trying to understand what we’re looking at,” says Mary Potter, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and senior author of the study.

This rapid-fire processing may help direct the eyes, which shift their gaze three times per second, to their next target, Potter says. 

“The job of the eyes is not only to get the information into the brain but to allow the brain to think about it rapidly enough to know what you should look at next. 

“So, in general, we’re calibrating our eyes so they move around just as often as possible, consistent with understanding what we’re seeing,” she says.

This means our eyes and minds are constantly searching for images and processing them to understand the world.

Mostly visual learners

And, according to research, we process images tens of thousands of times faster than words. This is probably why more than 65 percent of the population falls into the visual-learner category. Thinking visually can help you to learn and memorize concepts more easily.

Even the act of reading, as you are doing now, is piecing together images, according to Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and the author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.

Medina explains why reading is not as efficient as images can be for learning and retaining new information. 

“Combinations of straight lines and curves become the word ‘three.’ Written information has a lot of visual features in it, and this report takes a great deal of effort and time to organize.” For this reason, Medina says, “reading is a relatively slow way to put information into the brain.”

Bear this in mind next time you’re putting together a PowerPoint or report. You should use images and a few words on your slides, as opposed to text-heavy information.

I encourage you to use more images in your slides and reports because:

1. You’ll keep the attention on you and your message

They’re either reading the words on your slide or listening to you. An image is easier and faster to process so people can return to looking at and listening to you.   

 2. Creating contrast keeps their attention

One of the most important elements in your presentations is contrast. Human beings, particularly in a digital world, are constantly distracted. An image gives your audience new stimulation and a rest from all the words and numbers. This keeps their attention.

3. They’ll remember your messages

As noted above, most people are visual learners and will better understand and retain your key messages when you incorporate images. Pictures also appeal to the creative side of the brain and more effectively engage people.

4. We’re now addicted to images

We have become a visually oriented society. People are used to seeing and responding to images. If they are at work being given an extra deep dose of data without a visual break, they will feel overwhelmed or bored and tune you out.

5. Images speed understanding

With an image that represents a metaphor of the concept you are trying to explain, you help them make a faster transition to learning what you want them to know. 

It’s clear that using images in your presentations will make you a more effective presenter. You can also multiply this effect by telling a story with an image on the screen because stories are so memorable. The best stories paint mental pictures for listeners.

Where to find images for presentations

There are plenty of sources for images around the internet, both paid and free. Google is your friend. Creative Commons is a good source for royalty-free images, with or without restrictions such as needing to provide attribution to the photographer.

On the free side, there are sites that come with no requirements or restrictions on use. My current go-to favorite sites are Unsplash.com and Pexels.com. I generally give credit to the photographers, though this is not required.

This week, think about the visuals in your world and how you respond to them. 

Then consider using more images in your presentations and reports to speed understanding and keep your audience engaged.

You'll see the difference.


Photo by Benjamin Szabo on Unsplash


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