The Word of the Year is… Not a Word

Perhaps you heard the news. Every year, Oxford Dictionaries broadcasts a “Word of the Year” based on its usage and popularity. This year, they didn’t choose a word at all. They chose an emoji. Yep—an emoji, right from your tablet or phone. Instead of text, it was an image.

Uh… do you see any pattern here?

As I travel the world, I’ve witnessed a shift: Icons and images are replacing words in our messaging. It’s not that languages are unnecessary, just that language use in every day communication limits messages from being understood quickly. This is why we see:

  • Road signs using pictures to relay guidelines and warnings.
  • Websites using visuals to engage users and communicate categories.
  • Logos containing fewer words and using simpler icons for brand recognition.

Years ago, 3M published findings confirming the power of images in communication. They reported that visual aids in the classroom improved learning, comprehension and retention. Even more, visuals “yielded a 43% improvement in action” after learning. Kids like to see a picture, not just hear a word. We tend to remember pictures long after words have left us. We retain the stories in speeches more than the words. We remember scenarios.

What we’re seeing today is an increase in Visual Literacy. This is the ability to encode (create a visual language) and decode (understand a visual language). Unwittingly, this begins to happen when people invest time with imagery. Teacher and researcher Eric Jensen reveals that our eyes can register and process 36,000 visual messages per hour. Visuals are so engaging they make people want to talk. Pictures are worth a thousand words. Call me the master of the obvious, but in a classroom, I believe this equals student engagement.

I know undergraduate students who memorize for their final examinations using images and diagrams. A single picture can contain vast amounts of data, which enables long-term memory. Visuals actually help us file information. In 2000, David Hyerle informed us that 90% of the information that is retained in the brain is visual. It appears obvious that images and visual aids should be the standard format for memorization and learning.

What Do We Do with This Reality?


Perhaps we’ve failed to capitalize on this reality because we feel metaphors or images don’t seem very academic. The rigor feels like it’s missing. So, we continue in long, laborious lectures that students fail to understand, much less retain. I am not arguing we decrease our rigor. Students need to be challenged to learn deeply and think critically. I just believe if we begin with an image, it provides an anchor for all of that data to be filed and remembered.

Four Questions to Ask Yourself:

1. What’s the big idea I want to communicate?

2. Is there a metaphor I could use to summarize that message?

3. Can that picture be worth a thousand words—engaging students in discussion?

4. How will I use it as a language and taxonomy going forward?

Whether we know it or not, the use of languages is decreasing globally.

Language is changing around the world. Although our population is larger than ever, fewer languages are being used. Of the 6,900 languages spoken, over half will likely become extinct over the next century. Additionally, a mere ten languages make up 82% of the content on the Internet. Six of the ten constitute the official languages of the United Nations. These are the languages of commerce.

Not only is the world using fewer languages on a daily basis, we are using fewer words. The most frequently used 18 percent of our words account for 80 percent of word occurrences. No politician today uses the language that Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln did in their speeches or debates. Why? Images are replacing words. A simple image can be understood globally, even when people don’t speak the same language. We see this in advertising, in media programs, and in road signs. In short, images are the language of connection in the 21st century, not words. And this year, an image was actually the word of the year for Oxford Dictionary.

This is why I began creating Habitudes® in 2004. Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes. I recognized that when I taught using merely facts and figures, student engagement and retention was a crapshoot. When I offered an image and narrative, suddenly they caught all my big ideas and could pass them on.

Today, we provide schools, organizations and athletic teams with entire curricula based on teaching significant principles through images, conversations and experiences. I encourage you to check them out yourself.

Perhaps Oxford Dictionary is on to something with their word of the year. How are you using images in your communication?


The Word of the Year is... Not a Word