Word Pictures: Using Imagery to Convey Your Point
Connecting through a new way of communicating
“Being a CEO means keeping ten plates spinning at the same time. Hire people who help take some of those plates off your hands, not those who add more plates.”
“Having a third child while both parents work feels like you are drowning, only for someone to hand you a baby.”
“Our code is so intertwined that you flip a light switch on the fourth floor of Building 10, and a toilet flushes in Building 14.”
Think about what these statements all have in common: They are word pictures, and they hit you right in the gut. They make powerful statements by playing with the power of your imagination. You can picture each situation in your mind’s eye and experience it with your emotions.
When I was in college, I found a book in a room I had sublet for the summer. Published in 1988, The Language of Love, by Gary Smalley and John Trent, talked about how to communicate with your spouse through word pictures. This book completely transformed how I communicate, and the lessons I learned from it have stayed with me over the past two decades. It is rather dated now, but the concepts Smalley and Trent outlined are still applicable today, especially in the workplace, where they can help you make your point and convey your message with clarity. If you can illustrate your point of view using descriptive images rather than words, you can change the conversation and open up a new level of communication.
Word pictures can help you more easily achieve alignment. Think about it this way: When you describe a problem, people inevitably start debating you, point by point, in their own minds. By using an analogy to describe a scene or scenario, you can bring them along on your thought process and help them listen first, then debate second. This enables you to convey your point home in a more powerful way.
I once worked on a team where our product hit market fit all of a sudden and scaled rapidly. We were excited about the success, but there were fundamental weaknesses that only became evident as we grew. If we didn’t address them proactively, we would eventually hit a wall. I needed to get buy-in from the larger team to reduce feature work, which would allow us to focus on platform and integrity.
I started by saying, “We need to do more on the foundation,” only to realize that I wasn’t conveying the traction and sense of urgency we needed.
I gave it some thought and then decided to change tactics. I said to the team, “Right now we are building a skyscraper on a house’s foundation. We keep adding more floors, since we need room to grow, but we need to shore up the core before the cracks get bigger. Otherwise, we risk the whole thing crashing down.”
While the message was the same, the way I conveyed it was what finally made it resonate. The team responded, and together we reshuffled resources toward foundational work, rather than incremental features. By seeing our product aspiration as a skyscraper, they knew that the initial minimum viable product, our house, didn’t have a foundation to scale with us.
Landing a Message
Sending a message is hard when it doesn’t feel like it is landing.
I once had this issue with someone new who joined to support our team. While he was a kind and hardworking person, there was something about his communication that wasn’t working, and he was having trouble connecting with our work and team. The issue only got worse over time. At one point, when I came back from leave, half of my leads told me that they no longer wanted to work with him.
I tried advising him on this, persuading my team to give him another chance, and pointing out ways to repair the relationship. But the hole just got deeper and deeper. My message was not landing, and there ultimately came to a point when I could no longer salvage the situation.
I knew another team wanted him, but he didn’t want to change roles. He struggled to see that we were at the end of the road. Finally, I told him, “I see you barely keeping your head above water, but I want to see you soar.”
When I said those words, I could see the relief in his eyes. He had soared previously, and he knew that he could again. He now understood that staying in his current role was only holding him back from moving on to something better.
After that conversation, he switched to a role that was more suited to his skills and style, getting a fresh start on a new team. By reframing my point using strong imagery, I was able to make an argument that connected on an emotional level, rather than an abstract one which helped him make his decision.
Sometimes living with a chronic illness or chronic pain is hard for others to understand. As I mentioned in my coaching post, I once went through a period when I had symphysis pubis dysfunction. This resulted in debilitating daily pain. I was fortunate in that there was a finite point (giving birth) that would end the agony, but until then, the pain overwhelmed me. It reached the point that it was making it difficult to function.
One day, after I had suffered for months, my husband asked me to grab something for him. We had two toddlers at the time, so his request was reasonable. However, I simply couldn’t physically make it across the room, and I felt frustrated that he didn’t understand why. I replied, “Every step I take feels like someone is taking a hot poker and stabbing me in the groin.”
I don’t think he really understood the magnitude of my pain until I said that, and from that moment on, he was way more empathetic to the difficulty I was having that limited me in so many ways.
My friend, Alexa, has been battling an unknown sickness that has been repeatedly misdiagnosed for several years. She has shared a lot of her journey on Facebook, and I’ve followed it, often feeling sympathy for her challenges. However, I struggled to really empathize with what she was going through until last week when she posted this incredible word picture:
“Living with [Myalgic Encephalomyelitis] is like living every day on a very limited energy budget. Before I got sick, I had an energy budget of $200 to spend every day. Now, my daily budget is $10.
Driving to the store and buying groceries costs $2
Reading costs $1/hour
Watching TV costs $0.50/hour
Cooking and cleaning up the kitchen costs $3
Working an 8-hour day costs $8 (assuming I take some breaks)
Driving for 30 minutes costs $3
Walking for 20 minutes costs $4
Taking a nap regenerates $1
Not getting a full night’s sleep can cost anywhere from $1-5
I can borrow ‘money,’ if I want or need to do a little more on a given day, but I must deduct it from tomorrow’s budget. If I borrow too much or too frequently, my bank account gets frozen and I crash (e.g. migraine, nausea).
My life has become a series of cost-benefit analyses. I am forced to ruthlessly prioritize my daily activities to fit within this budget. I say this not to garner pity, but because there’s a lesson to be learned here. I used to complain — A LOT — about all the things I had to do like work and errands. While these chores might feel like mundane tasks, there is so much beauty in the fact that we CAN do them. Try to feel a little gratitude that you’re capable of driving, cooking, walking, working, etc. To be able to do these things is such a gift — and one that I will never again take for granted.”
In reading Alexa’s words, I could feel myself budgeting and juggling alongside her. I could sense her fear of her budget running out if something happened, and I wondered what choices I would make under similar constraints. Alexa didn’t just explain that she was tired and had limited capacity; she illustrated her day-to-day reality using a poignant analogy.
The power of word pictures is that they are personal. They enable you to walk in the shoes of someone who is suffering. This creates empathy and understanding on a deeper and more meaningful level.
Word pictures can also be used to help you give feedback without triggering a defensive reaction in the other person. By using imagery to illustrate your feedback, you can frame it less as a personal indictment and more as a shared story.
I once struggled to communicate with a direct report. He was the resident subject matter expert, and I had joined the team as a new leader during a transition. I found it difficult to get him to open up to me, which was a problem; he was the keeper of knowledge for his area, and I needed to learn from him in order to be effective. Every time I asked a question, he reacted defensively—almost on instinct. From my perspective, I was just seeking to understand, but from his, I was overstepping.
We went back and forth for some time, unable to connect, until we had a breakthrough. I said to him, “You baked an incredible wedding cake and put it on the table. It is perfect in every way, but I had to ask you, ‘Are you sure there are no strawberries? Our best man can’t be near strawberries.’ Then I asked, ‘Are you sure there are no nuts? Because my cousin is deathly allergic.’ You seemed upset that I asked, waved away my questions, and replied, ‘Why don’t you trust me?’ Instead, you could have set down the cake and said, ‘Here is the wedding cake. I made sure that no strawberries or nuts were used since I know you have guests with allergies.’ If you had done that, I wouldn’t have felt the need to ask, and if I hadn’t had to ask, you would not have felt attacked.”
He smiled and replied, “Sometimes the question I get is, ‘Why is the cake white?’ and it can get tiring to explain something so obvious after a while.”
We laughed about it, but this was a moment of clarity. The wedding cake story took us out of our normal tennis match communication style and got us onto the same page. By describing his craft as a wedding cake, I honored his expertise and skill. I was also able to illustrate how, when he presented the final work, the questions being asked were usually not attacks, but attempts to make sure that we were on the same wavelength. And his response helped me see how my questions seemed out of place and awkward. This helped us unlock our relationship.
Using word pictures can transform your relationships by helping you communicate more effectively. Rather than simply telling someone something, you are bringing them into your world with a vivid illustration of your point of view and experience. This diffuses tense situations and opens the door to dialog. Leveraging this tool, you can create new ways to connect and align with those around you.