Vivid Language

A photograph of Yaslin Bey.
Yaslin Bey

Regarding the art form of creating imagery using language, American hip-hop artist Yaslin Bey (who once performed as Mos Def), said: “The ability to have somebody read something and see it, or for somebody to paint an entire landscape of visual imagery with just sheets of words—that’s magical. That’s what I’ve been trying to strive for—to draw a clear picture, to open up a new dimension.”

Bring abstract ideas and concepts to life through the use of vivid imagery. Take a look at the following passage written by Dr. Josh Misner. He attempted to poetically capture the feeling of experiencing a fleeting moment while out on a hike with his two young children:

…then there are those magical moments between worlds, when we wait upon the silence and cast our gaze into the lights. The wind serenades us with the melody of a thousand years and trees dance to a rhythm of immemorial joy. Our palms caress crusted tips of wild grass as we comb through the meadow without words, yet mysteriously hearing their meanings echo among the chatter of nature. A smile and bright, wondrous eyes light the path ahead while we leave our cares behind for another day, another moment, but not this one. Today, we soak it all in, unfettered by definition or explanation. Today, we roam. Today, we marvel. Today is ours.

Misner could have described the exact same event in a more factual manner as follows:

We paused to take in the silence of the forest around us. The wind blew gently through the trees, while we ran our hands across the overgrown wild grass. We smiled at one another and continued our hike.

The difference between the two descriptions of the exact same event provides the reader (or listener, in the case of public speaking) with a wholly different experience of the same account. In the first passage, the imagery of bringing wind to life, along with painting a picture of the scene, almost places the audience there on the hike with them. While the second passage effectively does the same job, the first attempt clearly proves more effective at capturing the feel of the moment through the use of vivid imagery.

In addition to vivid imagery, consider using similes and metaphors to illustrate unfamiliar concepts and points. A simile provides a comparison between two seemingly dissimilar items that uses the word “like” or “as” to draw the comparison. For example, “That class session felt like a thousand years long!” A metaphor behaves similar to the simile, but does not use “like” or “as,” effectively making a more direct comparison, such as, “That class session was a thousand years of my life I’ll never get back!”

Be careful not to use cliché metaphors or similes, which are phrases and comparisons that people overuse in regular conversation, such as “last but not least,” “better late than never,” or “stuck out like a sore thumb.” These do not add variety or spice to a speech, and, when speaking to a foreign audience, these types of metaphors may end up creating confusion since their intended meaning often gets lost in translation.


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Messages that Matter: Public Speaking in the Information Age - Third Edition Copyright © 2023 by North Idaho College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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