Visual aids convince people; words, not so much. That’s the conclusion of a recent Dartmouth University study.

Cognitive researchers found that people were far more persuaded by graphical representations of data than by reading texts containing the same info.

For trainers, that means if you want trainees to buy into what you are saying, you’ll have better results if you use charts, pictures, tables, and other visual aids than relying just on words and numbers.

Words are ‘debatable’
The Dartmouth study involved testing something called disconfirmation bias – our tendency to resist information that contradicts pre-existing beliefs.

The researchers took contentious subjects where people were likely have strong feelings, then presented them with counter-evidence. Specifically, they attempted to persuade liberals that the Iraqi surge had succeeded, and to convince conservatives that jobs grew under the first year of President Obama’s first term.

Partisans were relatively unpersuaded when they were presented with the facts in text form. Indeed, using words seemed to provoke people into responding with more words. People tended to see verbal information as, literally, “debatable,” and formed verbal counter-arguments.

The researchers then presented the same information graphically – via line charts. In both cases, clear trend lines were visible.

When presented with info this way, the partisans were more likely to accept information that “disconfirmed” their political beliefs. And they were less likely to come up with counter-arguments.

The brain’s native language
A classic study from the University of Minnesota perhaps explains why the visuals were more effective: because images are the brain’s “native language.”

The amount of our brain devoted to processing visual data is much larger than the part used for processing words.

The study also found that information presented visually is not only more credible, but also more likely to be remembered.

How can a trainer apply this research? Here are some suggestions:

1. Use visuals when people resist need for training
If you’re getting resistance from trainees on a point, take a look at your materials and see if they’re word-heavy. Presenting the same information visually may break the deadlock.

Say, for example, that HR must conduct annual training on discrimination and sexual harassment. Perhaps you can open a presentation with a chart showing, for example, the cost per employee for such claims as a percentage of their paycheck, or a graphic representation of the rise in such claims.

Adding images to presentations helps too. Don’t just say the company was found liable. Show a judge banging a gavel.

2. Use them to lock in learning
If there’s something you really want people to remember, show it visually.

For example, suppose you’re trying to get bank tellers to avoid accepting checks with missing or bad information (e.g., no signature, a stale date, etc.)

Don’t just give them a checklist. Show them checks and have them look for what’s missing.

3. Use a variety of visuals
Visuals mean more than just charts or graphics.

For example, we know a manager who asked a worker to view himself in a full-length mirror. It turned out his pants cuffs were worn out and he looked much more slovenly than he’d thought. The mirror was more convincing than the manager’s verbal feedback.

Similarly, a role play in a session offers lots of visual cues. So it helps not only the participants but the observers. They see the techniques in action, and they’re more likely to believe what they see.

Nyhan, Brendan, et al. (2011). Opening the political mind? The effects of self-affirmation and graphical information on factual misperceptions. Dartmouth University.

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