“Words and pictures have great powers to tell stories when creators fully exploit them both.” -Scott McCloud
Great presenters have figured out how to use both words and pictures to create cohesive and moving messages that the audience finds attractive, relevant, and valuable. They’ve figured out how to use both forms of communication to tell a great story. But it’s not always easy to figure out how the two work together. One of the best sources on how words and pictures both work together and differ is Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.
It might seem strange to talk about how comics can inform public speaking, but think about it. There are many similarities between the art of public speaking and the art of comics because they both rely on words and images to communicate a message to an audience. This week, we’ll explore a few of McCloud’s most important points in an effort to understand how we can more thoughtfully use words and images when we present.
What are Icons?
Words and pictures are both types of icons. Perhaps it would be best to let McCloud explain icons in his own way.
So both words and pictures stand for other things. They help us create and express meaning. But they function a little differently. Words are made up of fixed, non-pictorial icons that we call letters. The meaning of letters doesn’t change based on its appearance very often, if at all. For example, if a teacher writes a “B” on the top of a student’s paper, the meaning of that “B” doesn’t change if the handwriting or color or form changes.
Unlike pictures, letters don’t connect directly to the mental image or feeling we are trying to communicate. If we write the word “face,” that series of letters doesn’t look anything like a face. And it wouldn’t affect us any differently to see the word projected on a screen rather than to hear it spoken by a presenter.
Pictures on the other hand, are icons which are tied more heavily to the expression of ideas and emotions. They are meant to represent something or someone. Glance again at some of the pictorial icons above. Do they conjure up any emotions? Are any of them tied to personal memories or stories? Probably so. Speakers need to understand that linguistic icons like letters don’t move the audience the same way pictorial icons do.
So How Should You Use Them?
McCloud says, “Generally speaking, the more is said with words, the more the pictures can be freed to go exploring and vice versa. In comics at its best, words and pictures are like partners in a dance and each one takes turns leading. When both partners try to lead, the competition can subvert the overall goals.”
The same holds true for presenting. You can do more in a presentation that uses both words and pictures. Perhaps you’ve been afraid to use visuals in your presentation. I get it. It can feel like another world. But if that’s the case for you, jump back up to the quote at the top of this page and read it again. And let that excite you!
If you normally use pictures in your presentations but have previously done so without much thought, hopefully the world of comics can help inform your decisions from now on. When using pictures or images in a presentation, they should either be the focus of what is happening (and the words take a turn supporting the pictures) or be supporting the words. Most times, just using words on a screen won’t do much to help or affect the audience. Remember that presenting, like comics, is a dance between words and visuals. Think about what the audience needs to hear and what they need to see and how those two things can support each other as two different kinds of icons.
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