Editor’s note; Billy Warden is a writer, marketing exec and multimedia producer based in the Research Triangle, where he co-founded the p.r. agency GBW Strategies. He’s a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire.
DURHAM – Don’t flush Elon Musk’s famed poop emoji just yet. By going scatological, the world’s wealthiest tweeter made a pungent point about rhetoric. One I’ll be using in my upcoming public speaking workshops.
The turd heard round the world dropped during an extended tweet beef between Musk and Twitter CEO Parag Agrawai over the pervasiveness of bots on the platform. Agrawai stated (in complete sentences, no emojis) that Twitter is “strongly incentivized to detect and remove as much spam as we possibly can, every single day. Anyone who suggests otherwise is just wrong.”
Musk responded with the famed emoji de excrement. Musk’s many followers were amused. Others bemused. To the unimpressed, the gesture seemed juvenile; a new low, even for social media.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 16, 2022
But before turning up your nose, consider how Elon’s tweet confirmed the power of a strong image.
Three tips for using imagery in public speaking
I run workshops in public speaking for executives and politicians. We throttle through storytelling and the ins-and-outs of rhetoric. But the workshop slips into a special gear when we take the curve into the candy-colored realm of imagery. Ronald Reagan vividly flashing back to a Christmas morning during the Great Depression to evoke hope in the face of dire challenges. Bill Clinton illustrating his humble roots with descriptions of his grandfather’s country store.
People are visual. Our minds take pictures and little movies that shine on in our memory banks. By flicking the switch on an image, you engage each audience member in the act of building the specifics from their own experiences. And that awakens their senses – the enveloping aroma of a country store, the happy chill of a Christmas morning.
Suddenly, the typical speech with its facts and abstractions becomes sensual, visceral. And an engaged audience is much more likely to absorb and act on your message than a yawning one.
So, keeping sight of that infamous Musk moment, here are three tips for successfully using imagery.
As the classic children’s book notes, “everyone poops.” Every day. Elon’s emoji sent us all to our outhouse of experience – whether we wanted to visit or not. Reagan’s evocation of Christmas was a considerably more pleasant trip.
The point is to conjure images common enough to instantly connect with the audience.
While tapping common experiences ensures audience participation, leaning into cliches can instead ensure eye rolls. Yes, “a ship without a rudder” is a word picture, but one employed so often it’s about as engaging as a file cabinet.
Reagan took the well worn idea of Christmas in a new direction by setting it in the poverty-stricken Great Depression. He invited audiences to imagine a glowing Christmas tree – then strategically stripped it of its garlands and lights.
Elon’s emoji wasn’t so artful. But the novelty of seeing it plop into the middle of a conversation between CEOs is undeniable.
A powerful image deserves a moment to really land with audiences.
In his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King marshals a mesmerizing gamut of imagery – from “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’” to “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Just as importantly, he plots his delivery to ensure the visuals make an impact. After a methodical build up, “bad check” comes out hard and fast – a body punch. “Justice rolls down like waters” is triumphal.
Few can orate like MLK. But we all can make use of volume, pauses and pacing.
Coming seemingly an eon later in terms of sensibility, Elon gave his notorious emoji a moment. A beat all its own. It was a solo show – without the usual parade of emoticons to distract from the message.
And whether you liked it or not, it connected; it was – as we say in the marketing business – ‘sticky.’