Using Pictures to Train

A learner may forget what we told them, but they canメt モunseeヤ what we showed them.

By Tim Rymel, M.Ed., Owner,

When my teenage daughter first told me about Instagram, I jumped right on it. I’m an involved parent, after all, so if she were going to have an Instagram account, so was I. I downloaded the app, set up my profile, and didn’t look at it again for several weeks. Quite honestly, I didn’t know what it, or I, was supposed to do. I eventually realized that Instagram, like Pinterest and other social media, are doing what we in training and education should have been doing for years: providing information that is succinct, to the point, and fast.

A USA Today article by Jon Swartz noted that corporate users received on average approximately 110 e-mails a day in 2010; there were roughly 110 million Tweets a day back then; and business losses due to “unnecessary interruptions” came to around $650 billion a year, even back in 2007. It’s no wonder that training so often is seen as a disruption of work instead of a value add. When we have the opportunity to get in front of our stakeholders, we try to squeeze in as much information as we can, consolidating with overly used acronyms and excessively wordy PowerPoint slides. Sometimes worse, we have that director or VP telling us what to say and how to say it. Ultimately, our learners only hear noise.

Pictures as Learning Tools

Pictures stimulate our visual and cognitive senses in a way words cannot. Seeing a face, a flower, or a situation is an experience to be had. My daughter’s Instagram account is full of photos of her and her friends in various situations and places, or of their favorite bands and band members. Some photos tell stories; others spark fantasy. All of the photos are relatable to them in one way or another. Similarly, pictures can be used in training to connect to our audiences and invoke a learning experience.

Make a Human Connection

Not every picture you use has to relate to the world of business. I’ve had my fill of pictures of people on the phone to represent customer service, people working on laptops, people shaking hands and, heaven help me, people smiling in virtually every corporate scenario. That’s not an honest portrayal of what goes on in business, and we all know it.

Several years ago, I consulted for a company that rolled out a half-baked software program. We all knew the program was broken, but the company mandated we put on a happy face and pretend it wasn’t. I discovered that our lack of acknowledgement of the problem infuriated the customers and, quite frankly, I couldn’t do it. So I found a picture of a man screaming at his computer and added it to my e-mail signature. I also added a tagline that simply said, “We’re listening.” The customers loved it. They got a good laugh out of it, and our training sessions went much more smoothly because they knew I identified with their frustration and acknowledged that there was a problem.

People are more than just business. In my book, “Everything I Learned About Management I Learned from Having a Kindergartner,” I emphasize that in order for us to be effective at business, we have to be effective at being human. Humans connect to human emotions, human motivations, needs, wants, desires, and experiences. Whether I’m teaching a class on how to use a computer or a class on communication, I make a point of relating to my audience with stories that connect our humanity.

Pictures should not be all about business. There also should be pictures of animals, children, families, or situations that make us laugh, evoke strong emotions, or just connect us in some way that is relatable as a human to the topic being discussed.

Make a Relevant Connection

I have to confess that whenever I see pictures presented in training situations that are unrelated to the subject, my mind goes on a little journey. I either wonder how the photo is related to the topic, or I wonder what the instructional designer was thinking. (A picture of a briefcase and a slide that says, “What’s New in Cloud Technology?” Hmm. Is the cloud in the briefcase?) This may require some creativity on your part as the instructional designer, but tie your picture and topic together. Learners only make cognitive connections when there is a reason to do so. If I’m talking about cloud technology, I may want to use a picture of a cloud, or a picture of rain, or people looking up to the cloud, or something that triggers the connection between technology and the cloud.

Relevant connections also can be accomplished by using pictures that tell a story or create a scenario. Learners will remember pictures of things they can relate to that are in the story. We all like stories of human interest or stories that grab our attention. How and why would someone want to use this new cloud technology? Give a situation of when someone would use it. If I’m a salesperson, I’m more likely to remember that situation and use that story as an example for my customers.

Also, don’t be afraid to use a little humor. Cartoons, as long as copyrights are not being violated, are a great way to make a connection, as well as funny stories where no one gets hurt or humiliated. We have a tendency to avoid humor in the workplace because we don’t want anyone to be offended, but we also miss out on an opportunity to make a learning impact.

Pictures are powerful because they get the point across in a timely manner, eliminating the noise around us. Besides, a learner may forget what we told them, but they can’t “unsee” what we showed them.

Tim Rymel is a speaker and the author of “Everything I Learned About Management I Learned from Having a Kindergartner.” He is also the owner of, specializing in e-learning and corporate education consulting. For more information, visit

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