There it was, three streets away from my house. I had to pass it every time I drove my kids to school. I felt embarrassed and creeped out at the same time by the glaring billboard.
Picture it: a guy in a 70s-era paisley shirt, huge lapels, white jacket, enormous orange sunglasses with thumb up, mouth open, winking, and tongue lolling out. Ew.
By itself, the image could be humorous, but the text around it said something about a medical doctor? And… (ready for it?) plastic surgery? What in the world did big lapels and tongues have to do with plastic surgery? Yikes.
For the first days, as I passed it driving kids to school, I tried to shield my eyes or look away. Luckily, I was in the middle of a master’s program in strategic communication, and that semester we were studying visual communication.
We learned how every image tells a story. We combed through logos, ads, and fonts to discern what they were telling us. What is the setting? Who were the characters? What are they doing? What do they want?
Did a font look like a person (character) could create the letters with a pen? Was an image reminiscent of a past era (setting)? Does the logo portray an emotion of elegance, humor, or formality (action)?
We were assigned the task of breaking down the story—a rhetorical analysis—of a few different images of our choosing. Now I had a chance to understand why I found this billboard so cringe-inducing. Instead of looking away, I took multiple pictures. I stared hard at it, breaking down the elements of the story. I read it. “Some people think they are perfect. For everyone else, there is Dr. Warnock.” Dr. Warnock, plastic surgeon.
No wonder I was creeped out. The story here isn’t clear at all. Who is the lapel guy? Is he supposed to be the perfect one? Or is he “everyone else?” Or is that Dr. Warnock? Even worse in the story, what is he doing and (horror) what does he want? I felt too disturbed to try to answer.
The ad was so bad that it actually became fun to write about. I had fun understanding my reaction to the seven different fonts, the lack of open space, and scattered placement. I looked at the story elements to discern the multiple possible plot lines the ad was trying to lead us towards.
Was the viewer wanting to be perfect? Were we supposed to feel comfortable and trusting of Dr. Warnock? Was this guy on the billboard Dr. Warnock who was excited about operating on us?
I’m not alone in delighting in creating multiple stories. Our brains make up stories all the time, whether we are aware of them or not.
Stories are how we make sense of the visual world around us. We are constantly putting pieces of information together to understand how we fit in, what is expected of us, and how to make decisions.
Beau Lotto, professor of neuroscience at the University College of London, shares how our brain only knows how to interpret visual information based on the past story of the information.
For example, a dark shape in front of us could be a shadow from a rock or could be a hole in the ground. We remember the past story of the object to understand what it is: a person on this path fell down that kind of dark shape, or a person interacting with that kind of dark shape found some cool shade.
We make up stories even if we don’t mean to, and sometimes we try to tell one story, but the images tell another. (Look up “funny bad logos” if you dare. Yikes.)
The one lesson I learned from the billboard was that when I present images to the world to represent my thoughts, ideas, and offerings, be careful to clearly show the viewer how they fit into the story and where the story is taking them.
Does part of your speakership include visual images? What stories are you trying to tell with the colors, fonts, and pictures you use?
Now it is time for me to tell a story with a picture too.
I need your help to choose the cover for my upcoming book “Speakership is Leadership: A Guide for Sudden Leaders who Need to Lead with Their Words. Yesterday.”
To see the covers and chime in on what stories they are telling you, go to this survey.
I’m excited to hear your thoughts and share these stories with you.