It’s intuitive to believe that visuals are more memorable than text. To a degree, science confirms this. Research shows that visuals impact recall because they help viewers process information faster and assist them to pay attention by being more engaging than text.
But there is such a thing as a forgettable visual. Think of all the information you encounter in a typical week. How much of it do you remember? We forget our lives almost as quickly as we live them, and visuals can still escape our memories.
In her July 19, 2017, Content Wrangler webinar, The Science behind Memorable Visuals, cognitive neuroscientist, Dr. Carmen Simon, talked about how to stay on people’s minds by applying science-based guidelines from the angle of how the brain processes visuals.
A bestselling author and leading expert on using memory to influence decision-making, Carmen covered how to use visual thinking skills in four areas that are prevalent in business communication: facts, processes, data, and abstracts. She also covered how to use design elements (images, text, lines, shapes) to create interesting—and memorable—content.
Carmen provided universal visual design principles and explained how they influence viewer attention and retention, including how to create and select visuals that impact memory and how to avoid those that don’t.
Visual thinking is important because, when you use images correctly, you have the luxury of staying on your audience’s minds long-term. This helps you influence their decisions because people act in your favor based on what they remember, not on what they forget.
Her most recent book, Impossible to Ignore: Create Memorable Content to Influence Decisions, has won the acclaim of publications such as Inc.com, Forbes, and Fast Company and has been selected as one of the top international books on persuasion.
Read on for some highlights from Carmen’s talk. For the details, go to her webinar and listen to the whole hour’s worth for free.
Why does it matter which visuals are more memorable?
“All your audiences make decisions in your favor based on what they remember,” Carmen says. So all businesses need to ask themselves, What makes people remember your content where visuals are concerned? How do we “stay on people’s minds long enough for them to decide in our favor?”
While we can’t assume that people remember pictures more than text, pictures can influence someone’s memory significantly. People often find pictures more interesting than text. Also the brain can process pictures faster. Finally, pictures generally retain our attention longer.
What are the elements of visual thinking for nondesigners?
Carmen breaks down elements of visual thinking into three groups:
- Think in pictures
- Visual elements
- Universal design principles
Think in pictures
Facts: Most information we share with our audiences in the business world is based on facts, some objective reality we have to define. When you are sharing factual information, challenge yourself to communicate it with pictures. “The brain is always looking to conserve cognitive energy,” Carmen says. “Your brain is not like a computer; it’s looking to help you live to fight another day. It enjoys cognitive ease and will retain it.”
Processes: When you describe a process, you tell people “You need to move from point A to point B, and these are the steps.” Use arrows to indicate the order of the information in a sequence and a smooth flow to help the brain visualize and remember.
Numbers: “Challenge yourself to place data in a visual format so that you bring it to life and give it meaning.” She gives this memorable example:
Abstract terms: In these days, when people are constantly multitasking, their brains are “often too cognitively lazy to go through the effort” of making sense of your abstract information (generalizations, theories, feelings, attitudes). So don’t “leave it to the audience to visualize the meaning.”
For example, Carmen asks, what image would you choose to represent the abstract meaning of “revenge”?
It makes sense to evoke emotion with a concrete image where appropriate since emotions are memorable. “The brain is mobilized by specifics.”
Note that words can build mental pictures, too. Mental pictures often come from metaphors, as in Carmen’s Johnson & Johnson example describing Band-Aids as bodyguards:
“Use metaphors to rescue text from content amnesia,” Carmen says. “What is memory but an association between two concepts.”
How much difference is there from one culture to another? Carmen says that the brain hasn’t changed much in the last 40,000 years. “Whether you’re from Portland or Pakistan,” she says, “most of our body receptors are visual. The brain is physiologically equipped to handle images.”
Pictures: “Attention is mandatory for memories to be built,” she says. At the same time, if the brain has too much visual stimulation, it doesn’t know what to focus on. So don’t use pictures gratuitously. Avoid visual clichés. “There is such a thing as a forgettable picture,” she says.
One of her pet peeves is generic images of people touching a tablet, and out of the screen come a bunch of magical icons or interconnected dots, implying “good things come out of these devices.” Don’t use these to make slides pretty, for example. These days, those images are meaningless. “If you’re using those images, it probably means that you don’t know the subject well enough.” Another example: People wearing business suits and using a laptop on the top of a mountain.
Avoid SGSs: stupid generic shots.
Text: Use vivid, concrete words that help the brain build images. For example, if you showed an otherwise forgettable photo of Mount Everest with this vivid description, the words alone would be memorable:
Lines: Lines are important in any communication, for example, in a slide or in a document. With simple lines, you can impact the way the brain processes information. Lines can create a mood, and they can separate or group information. You can tilt them, display them in multiple formations, make them wavy, or get creative in any number of ways to organize and draw attention to your content in ways that help people remember it.
Shapes: You can also “earn a spot in someone’s mind” with shapes. Here’s another of Carmen’s examples:
Watch the full webinar
For the rest of what Carmen has to say on this topic, watch the full webinar here.