Invite Your Audience To “Imagine”

One of the most powerful ways to inspire your audience is kindle deep introspection during your speech.  The more concretely listeners visualize their own participation in your story or with your ideas, the more likely they are to take the actions required to change their world.

Fortunately, there is one magic word – “IMAGINE” – that triggers the brain to instantly visualize almost anything.

Tip 1: Ask listeners to imagine themselves

In her TEDIndia 2009 talk, Jane Chen shared a concept for a low-cost, life-saving incubator with the potential to save the lives of millions of premature babies in the developing world. She began her talk as follows:

“Please close your eyes and open your hands. Now imagine what you could place in your hands: an apple, maybe your wallet. Now open your eyes.  What about a life?”

As she asked “What about a life?”, Ms. Chen revealed an Anne Geddes image of a tiny baby sleeping in the palm of pair of aged hands.  In this instance, the question was abstract enough that the image added specificity and emotional intensity.  Most of the time, it is best to just let people’s imaginations run wild. The freedom of imagination explains why the book is always better than the movie.

Tip 2: Invite your audience into your stories

In the example above, Jane Chen used the word “imagine” to enhance an activity that her audience completed in the room.  However, an even more powerful approach is to use this magic word to invite your audience to be a fly on the wall in your stories.  For example, you might start out as follows: “Imagine you were with me the day I met my wife…”

Tip 3: Pause after asking your audience to imagine

After you ask your audience to imagine, you must give them a nice long pause so that they can create a visual image or scan their brain for a suitable memory.  That requires a much longer silence than many speakers are comfortable with – at least 5 seconds.

Tip 4: Engage your audience’s full sensory imagination

Amateur speakers focus only on the visual.  When professional speakers ask their audience to imagine, they strive to engage all five senses – sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound.  For example: “Imagine you were with me the first time I went to New York City.  Coming from a small Midwestern town, I was certain that I was surrounded by muggers at every turn.  Have you ever felt there was danger at every turn?  On that sweltering August day, I choked on the smell of taxi cab exhaust mixed with the sweat of pedestrians pressed shoulder-to-shoulder on every street corner…”

Tip 5: Ask your audience to imagine their bright future

The word “imagine” is just as powerful at the end of your speech as it is at the beginning. In your conclusion, ask people to picture their lives if they apply your inspirational message.  “Imagine what your life would be like if you woke up tomorrow with compassion for your friends.  Imagine what your life would be like if you woke up tomorrow with compassion for your family.  Imagine what your life would be like if you woke up tomorrow with compassion for… yourself.”

Tip 6: Provide just enough specificity

The word “imagine” can be used either to bring your audience into your stories or to prompt them to visualize their past or their future.  When bringing people into your stories, you want to provide a very high level of detail that engages all five senses.  However, if you are trying to get them to think about themselves, then you need to back off on detail and allow them the freedom to explore their mind.

Try it out!

The next time you speak, ask your audience to imagine at least twice.  At the beginning of your speech, draw individuals into a vivid, sensory story.  At the end of your speech, invite your audience to imagine their future if they apply your message. Imagine how much more inspiring your speech will be…