From the Lab: The Power of Imagination

Close your eyes and imagine a world in which your speeches are significantly more charismatic and persuasive. As Richard Young notes in How Audiences Decide, there’s an easy way to make this a reality: simply use the power of imagination.

For example, voters who are asked to imagine a particular candidate winning an election become more convinced that that candidate will win it. Similarly, people who are asked to imagine having a disease come to believe that it is more likely they will catch it. This is also true for winning a contest and getting arrested for a crime. (On the other hand, when an outcome is difficult to imagine, people believe it is less likely to happen.) Studies have also shown that these beliefs can lead to changes in behavior: for example, homeowners who are asked to imagine the benefits of having cable TV are more than twice as likely to subscribe to it then those who are simply told about the same benefits.

While I’ve previously suggested that asking the audience to imagine something can make a great hook for your speech and that imagination can be an effective supplement (or replacement) for visual aids, these studies suggest that it has even greater power: it can also convince the audience to see the world your way. Whether it’s convincing them that good things will happen if they accept your ask, or convincing them that bad things will happen if they don’t, imagination can be a powerful tool in your persuasive toolbox.

From the Lab: Close Your Eyes

At several points in The Science of Speaking, I talk about power of asking your audience to imagine something. Often, when speakers use this strategy, they will ask their audience to close their eyes.

The results of a 2008 study by Perfect, et al., confirm that this common approach is a good one: when witnesses in the study were asked to close their eyes, they remembered significantly more details—both visual and auditory—compared to witnesses who had their eyes open. This is particularly relevant if you’re asking the audience to imagine something that has already happened (“Imagine a time in the past when you …”), but it likely applies to imagining the future as well (“Imagine a future in which …”).

Another potential application of this technique is in visualization. As I note in the book, the more vividly you can visualize yourself giving a successful speech, the less nervous you will feel about it. This study suggests that to do this most effectively, you should close your eyes when you visualize.