‘See-Sick’ in Prezi: What place for visual rhetoric?

I have begun writing a paper on visual rhetoric. I sat on the 7:31 commuter train to St.Pancras and watched to commuters, hunched over their laptops, working in PowerPoint. Their screens, filled with words, varieties of fonts, and formatting tricks in abundance. These comprehensive essays in landscape, perhaps to be printed and distributed but more likely projected illegibly for a bewildered business audience later that day reminded me again of the fundamental misuse of a very powerful and effective technology. The same day I showed my wife a Prezi presentation that I was preparing for a workshop the following day. Her comment was that it made her feel seasick as I moved fluidly, but somewhat distractedly, from one block of text to another. I suggested the term ‘see-sick’.

So I began to consider the power of these visual tools in our classrooms and the very superficial understanding that I, and I suspect the majority of my colleagues have, of their use. In such circumstances I often find it useful to turn to Merlot or Aristotle. Since I had no Merlot I turned to Aristotle.

Aristotle, identified three branches rhetoric: judicial, epideictic and deliberative.  Judicial rhetoric is concerned with justice and injustice, the defence or advocacy of charge or accusation. Epideictic rhetoric refers to speech or writing in praise or blame. Perhaps the most familiar notion of rhetoric is that of deliberative, in which speech or writing attempts to persuade others to take or not to take some defined action.

Much of our teaching is the incitement to learners to do something, to take an action. Teaching may in many circumstances be considered deliberative rhetoric, an invitation on the part of the student  (as reader, listener or participant) to pause and consider in response to a carefully timed performance and managed argument, the pace and rhythm control, the deliberate self interruption, punctuated silence, exclamations, questions, punctuating gestures. The teacher’s role is not simply to highlight an argument but to ensure that if a vote were cast the learner might make an appropriate judgment.

Teaching in face-to-face contexts supported by presentational technologies, the ubiquitous PowerPoint or some more contemporary form of visual media, requires a new mastery of rhetoric – that of visual rhetoric. This branch of rhetorical studies that concerns itself with the persuasive use of images, in isolation or in harmony with words, is a powerful tool in the classroom.

We live in an intensely visual world, surrounded by images in advertising, music, news information and educational media. Arrangements of words, in tag clouds, Wordle (http://www.wordle.net),  or PowerPoint arrangements are visual objects. Text projected on the wall is either a visual representation, discursive, provocative, motivating or informative, or it is ‘just words’. Not every projected arrangement of light and dark on the classroom wall is easily inferred as a visual object, as visual rhetoric, “(W)hat turns a visual object into a communicative artifact–a symbol that communicates and can be studied as rhetoric–is the presence of three characteristics. In other words, three markers must be evident for a visual image to qualify as visual rhetoric. The image must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience.” (Smith, 2005, p. 144)

Kostelnick and Roberts in “Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators”, detail six canonical criteria through which to interpret the rhetorical impact, primarily of written text. These six are: arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, tone and ethos.

  • Arrangement – is the organisation of visual elements to demonstrate structure (and relationships)
  • Emphasis – differentiates elements giving some prominence through changes in size, shape and colour.
  • Clarity – avoiding unnecessary elements to assist the reader in ‘decoding’ quickly and completely the ‘message’
  • Conciseness –appropriately succinct designs that serve a specific audience need
  • Tone – the writer/presenter/designer’s tone provides evidence of their attitude to the subject
  • Ethos – developing the trust of the audience

These six visual criteria provide a helpful starting point in beginning to see images as objects for visual rhetoric and appropriate interpretation.  (Kostelnick & Roberts, 2010)

Since Zaltman suggests that thoughts occur as images, which are essentially visual, there is a direct inverse relationship between the power of the visual to provoke an emotional non-verbal reaction, a thought. Research by Joy and colleagues using the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique suggest a range of interesting relationships between viewers sense of space and depth, related directly to the positioning of objects, to the juxtaposition (overlapping, transparency, distortion) of images in support of a narrative. They conclude, “(U)ltimately, images and words are separate building blocks in the telling of stories but the two amplify each other. Researchers need to enrich and supplement the abstractions that accompany visuals with the details and particulars that accompany the verbal.” (Joy, Sherry Jr., Venkatesh, & Deschenes, 2009, p. 566)

Back in 2001 I did (what I still think was ) some interesting work with Nicola Durbridge at the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology looking at how to overcome some of the restrictions of text based discussion boards, the ‘drudgery’ of CMC (Computer Mediated Conferencing). I explored a simple ‘visual metaphor’ of a classroom so that individuals posting items to a forum did so ‘spatially’ as icons rather than simply adding the posting to list. (Atkinson, 2001). I have just scanned the resulting conference paper and it is work I would be keen to extend now in looking at Prezi and its use of visual rhetoric.

A Prezi that explores visual rhetoric is on its way.


Atkinson, S. (2001). Re-Tooling Online. In Book of Abstracts (pp. 154-156). Presented at the Online Educa Berlin 2001, Berlin: ICEF Berlin GMBH.

Joy, A., Sherry Jr., J., Venkatesh, A., & Deschenes, J. (2009). Perceiving images and telling tales: A visual and verbal analysis of the meaning of the internet. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19(3), 556-566. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2009.05.013

Kostelnick, C., & Roberts, D. D. (2010). Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators. Longman Publishing Group.

Smith, K. L. (2005). Handbook of visual communication: theory, methods, and media. Routledge.


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