One of the biggest differences between live and virtual meetings is the importance of visual illustrations. Virtual interactions are the perfect medium for using pictures to support a sales presentation. In fact, illustrations can make the difference between a successful encounter and a waste of time. Simply look at how social media has embraced the use of pictures. According to Hootsuite, as of January 2020, there were nearly 1 billion monthly active users on Instagram, surpassing Twitter’s number of users. So why is a picture worth more than 280 characters?

As we explored in previous blogs, virtual meetings are vastly different from live interactions because the nonverbal signals and subtle communication clues that are normally exchanged between people can be missed on a screen. As a result, the structure of your narrative and the quality of your images are critical to getting and keeping the audience’s attention and to influencing their thinking. The good news is that the human brain is highly susceptible to being captivated and influenced by pictures. Take advantage of this by effectively illustrating your story.

Turning On the Brain

Traditionally, sales professionals have relied heavily on the ability of words to emotionally influence others in face-to-face meetings. Words do change minds, and it’s important to master the storyline of your message. But adding one or more illustrations massively strengthens your message’s impact because they activate more areas of the listener’s brain.

When you speak, your words are processed in the auditory cortex of the listener’s brain. This is a relatively small area on the outer edge of the brain where sounds are interpreted.

Humans can hear only a narrow range of sounds compared to other animals, so only a relatively small portion of your brain is dedicated to processing the information available from sounds. Dogs, for example, have much larger sound-processing systems in their brains, which enables them to understand the world based on what they hear.

The evolution and development of the human brain were driven by the need to see threats and opportunities in the world, the ability to predict where an animal was likely to go, and the importance of seeing what other people were doing. As a result, the visual cortex is huge compared to other areas of the brain. This means that humans pay attention to images much more than smells, sounds or tastes.

The visual cortex, located on the surface of the neo-cortex, allows us to process an enormous amount of visual information very quickly, which is why we say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The brain understands complex information rapidly and accurately when that information is transmitted visually but struggles for a much longer time to arrive at the same clarity when data are conveyed auditorily.

For example, imagine trying to explain the color, shape and position of furniture in a room by using smell, taste, touch and sound. It would take a long time to get the information into the other person’s brain, and a lot of important details would be missing. Alternatively, showing a picture of the room full of furniture allows the information to be processed almost instantly. That’s the difference between the visual and auditory channels in the human brain.

Using Pictures and Words Together

The implications here are significant for creating impactful virtual meetings. Rather than just speaking your thoughts, you can massively accelerate how quickly your audience gets your message by adding visual representations to the auditory information. The combination of speech and pictures activates both processing areas in the brain, thus increasing the listener’s focus and engagement (which is why movies and television are so much more impactful than radio). Importantly, not just any picture will help get your message across: the image needs to communicate relevant and complex information clearly and must provide a deeper understanding of the material you’re talking about. Pictures for the sake of pictures simply clutter the meeting with irrelevant information and frustrate the listener.

Live meetings also benefit from visuals. The truly artful presenter can use a piece of paper to informally illustrate an idea with a simple line drawing: “Let me show you what I mean with a quick sketch.” In a formal meeting with a prepared presentation, using thoughtful illustrations is even easier: “This slide provides a deeper look at the idea.” Then you can talk about specifics within the picture and use the visual to carry more information to the listener.

For more details on creating visuals, read Dan Roam’s book The Back of the Napkin, which provides practical guidance for illustrating almost any complicated idea with simple line drawings. The AllianceBernstein Advisor Institute’s white paper How to Explain What You Do: A Holistic Wealth Advisor shows how to use easy sketches to explain the unique value of a full-service, holistic advisor. Our white paper How to Present Your Capital Markets Perspective also provides examples of illustrations that help impart a complicated message about investing.

As you get better at creating or borrowing great visuals for your presentations, you will also learn how to interact with them more artfully. Think of the meteorologist who interacts with the weather map and explains a flow of storms across the screen. Your virtual meeting could be just as entertaining—and impactful—with the right visuals added to enrich your story.

For more resources from the AB Advisor Institute visit

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AB portfolio-management teams.

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