Picture superiority effect: The science of visual selling

21st Aug 2015

The challenge of being in a sales role is well documented. Ignoring the statistic that you’re currently more likely to win a pass bet at a craps table in Las Vegas than to close a sales deal, a number of other issues are forcing sales people to address the method in which they show their hand.

The buying cycle has evolved. More and more research is being done by buyers online, before a sales person has even made first contact. Actual selling is gradually being pushed towards the bottom of the buying journey, resulting in the point of sale becoming a lot more critical.

Klaxon’s Lauren Warner says this evolution means sales teams are having to think more like marketers, with the sales funnel more akin to a marketing system. “It’s the ‘ideal’ process you intend your customers to experience as they go from Prospect to Lead to Customer to Repeat Buyer,” she says, highlighting the following diagram as an example of the increasing synergy:

One unexpected by-product of this evolution is that the number of sales deals being done ‘on the road’ is on the increase (roughly 50%, according to Adobe research), as the importance of closing deals face-to-face becomes ever more relevant to both seller and buyer (especially in B2B).

IKO Systems data says 74% of sales people attend between one and five meetings with customers a week, yet contrastingly, Marketing Donut data stating only 2% of these meetings actually end in sales.

However, with 8% of sales people getting 80% of the overall sales, one conclusion you might draw from all this data is that the illustrious 8% are doing something significant to make themselves standout.

Picture superiority effect

Tim Riesterer, chief strategy and marketing officer of Corporate Visions and co-author of a number of books on the art of selling, including Conversations That Win the Complex Sale and most recently The Three Value Conversations, believes much of this success lies with something marketers have been historically  more affiliated with: visual storytelling.

Riesterer argues that many sales teams fail to attach enough significance to the art of being a ‘visual seller’, and that, with the rise of social selling and new modes of media consumption, sales people need to engage with their prospects through more instantly memorable means.

There is science associated with this concept. The ‘picture  superiority effect’ refers to the notion that information that is learned by viewing pictures is more easily and frequently recalled than information gleaned from reading written words or through listening.

According to Allan Paivio's dual-coding theory, memory exists either (or both) verbally or through images, and pictures tend to have an advantage over words because they are dually encoded; they generate a verbal and image code, whereas word stimuli only generate a verbal code.       

Some studies even claim that the brain processes visual information as much as 60,000 times faster than text ( although there is a debate about the legitimacy of this exact figure). In any case, while the art of telling a good story is by no means a new practice to sales people, the concept that painting more memorable pictures for prospects can improve sales is a compelling one, and is backed up by some form of research.

“The picture superiority effectively essentially says that people will only remember about 10% of what you say just two days after you say it, but if you attach what you say to a simple concrete visual that represents what you say, people will remember 65%,” says Riesterer.

“In other words, six to seven times more recall when you associate your story with a memorable image. We see visuals taking centre stage across the buying cycle.  The popularity of infographics proves this. I believe that that's how people best learn: they learn in simple visual graphics that tell a story that thousands of words and thousands of bullet points never could tell.”

Neuroscience also dictates that the integrative centre for emotions, emotional behaviour and motivation in the brain, the Amygdala, plays a key role in the decision-making process but is more visually stimulated to change, further backing this point up.   

“Behaviours and decisions to change happen and that part of the brain does not contain the capacity for language,” Riesterer adds. “So what it really does require is something visual, and in particular it requires contrast to actually be able to discern whether it makes sense to make a decision based on the proposal from a salesperson or their pitch. It's that visual contrast that sparks the emotion.”

Not just an infographic

So aside from the process of using infographics to better represent a product or service’s benefits, what does being a visual seller involve?

Riesterer states it is the art of reinforcing your message in a more effective manner, whether that be digitally in the early stages of a buying journey, through infographics, videos depicting your product or service in a visual form via social media or Slideshare, or in person, through more image-focused presentations or the old-school art of grabbing a marker pen and a flipchart:  

“For The Three Value Conversations we ran a test with Stanford University Graduate School of Business professor, Zakary Tormala, as we wanted to know “okay so pictures are superior, what kind of picture is actually the most superior?” We tested simple white board style imagery versus traditional PowerPoint, which has bullet points and maybe some stock photography versus another type of PowerPoint where you just have a large image across the entire screen with just a few words on it.

“We tested those three conditions on six different variables and on people immediately after watching, and then two days later and on every variable the simple whiteboard-style visual defeated both of those PowerPoint conditions by a specifically significant margin.”

In the initial study, 351 individuals took part in an online study and were told to imagine they were in charge of the sales staff at a company, were reviewing their method of presenting and were informed they would be viewing a presentation on this topic.

Unknown to them, the participants were randomly assigned to one of the three different conditions that varied the visuals accompanying an identical, spoken message.

Despite the fact that all the participants received the same information, the study revealed that the whiteboard outperformed the other two on a wide range of measures related to the message’s impact, including how engaging it was, its credibility, its quality and overall recall.

“In areas of recall like accuracy and completeness of recall, in areas of persuasion, meaning ‘did you share this?’ and ‘tell this to somebody else’, the whiteboard method came out on top. So we knew pictures were superior already, but what we found was that, actually, certain pictures outperformed others and it turns out that very simple whiteboard-style imagery outperforms typical PowerPoint approaches.”

The joined-up approach

So, the secret to selling success for the eminent 8% is as simple as getting in front of your prospects and projecting your thoughts with a marker pen and a whiteboard?

“Obviously this is the final part, when a salesperson is standing in front of a potential buyer, and is trying to ascertain the best mode of communicating their particular message,” adds Riesterer.

“But a buyer’s journey is a complex one and the digital aspect involved is still key in the early stages. Using infographics; using Instagram or Twitter; using diagrams in emails…it may seem obvious, but it all ties into the picture superiority effect and the idea of being a visual salesperson.”

With Corporate Visions research stating that only 17.6% of sales and marketing professionals feel their pitches are truly different from the competition, and a more substantial 47.7% saying they felt their pitches were not focused on the right messages, could it indeed be time to readdress how you or your sales team visually represent their proposals?

Well, if the words haven’t had an effect, there’s always a good chance an infographic might:

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