Book Review: The Age Of The Image, by Stephen Apkon

The Age of the Image CoverStephen Apkon’s new book, The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens more than lives up to last week’s preview in the Financial Times. This is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve ever read on corporate and political communications.

Images are replacing written communication

Newspaper circulation is down while YouTube views number in the billions. These facts are not unrelated.

Apkon argues that we are on the threshold of a new era where the democratic reach of media can now stretch to a level never before possible in human history. This phenomena is enabled by the ubiquity of screens to consume video; the universal language of the image over the specificity of written communications; the power and reach of the networks of distribution through YouTube and the web; and, finally, our ownership of the means of production via smart phone cameras and inexpensive editing tools. Apkon notes:

What we are now seeing is the gradual ascendance of the moving image as the primary mode of communication around the world: one that transcends languages, cultures, and borders. And what makes this new ear different from the dawn of television is that the means of production–once in the hands of big-time broadcasting companies with their large budgets–is now available to anyone with a camera, a computer, and the will.

The power of images

Akpon details how the human brain is wired for images (the province of 85% of our grey matter) and why we trust the evidence of our eyes above all else. Images are understood in context, which can be manipulated with narrative to hook an audience emotionally. We expect nothing less from Hollywood, we should not deny ourselves this facility.

Every picture tells a story

Images have energized corporate storytelling. Apkon shares examples where the old rules no longer apply: from the low-budget Dorritos Super Bowl ad to Gillette’s instructional video on How to Shave Your Groin, corporate video appeals directly to our ‘reptilian mind’, prior to logic and rationality.

Lawyers and journalists are tapping into the power of the image to bolster reasoned arguments.

Implications for executive communications

For anyone involved with corporate, political or executive communications the implications of Apkon’s thesis, even if he only partly right, are profound. Those who wish to succeed in the corporate world need superior communication skills. Today, these include not only listening, speaking, reading and writing, but also superior visual communications skills.

The days of the copy editor, speech writer, or PR professional who focuses on the language of the press release alone are numbered. We need to relax our obsessive focus on a logical, written narrative. Instead of endless meetings about the nuances of a product announcement, we should look for ways to craft images that will emotionally connect with an audience. Apkon recommends we learn from the black arts of the political advert:

Political images are much less logical that they let on–in fact, they rely on the image makers’ ability to tap into primitive emotional centers that govern adaptive urges such as fear, comfort, and love.

Remember, America is a country where one of the more popular of recent Presidents was a trained actor; California a state where we elected an inarticulate Austrian body builder with an outsized fictional screen presence as Governator. The biggest stumble made by the Republican challenger in the last election was being caught on video talking about “the 47 percent”.

Corporate communications professionals need to grab their Flip cameras (or whatever is available to them), fire up Windows Movie Maker and go stick the lens in the face of customers, partners, employees, and, yes, even executives.

Apkon’s important book challenges us to recognize the importance of the image over the written word, to learn to become literate in this medium, and to be willing to step forward and say “Lights, Camera, Action!”.

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In my original view I forgot to mention how Apkon’s work is supported by the fascinating thesis in Leonard Shlain’s excellent The Alphabet and the Goddess which “takes readers from the evolutionary steps that distinguish the human brain from that of the primates to the development of the Internet. The very act of learning written language, he argues, exercises the human brain’s left hemisphere–the half that handles linear, abstract thought–and enforces its dominance over the right hemisphere, which thinks holistically and visually. If you accept the idea that linear abstraction is a masculine trait, and that holistic visualization is feminine, the rest of the theory falls into place. The flip side is that as visual orientation returns to prominence within society through film, television, and cyberspace, the status of women increases, soon to return to the equilibrium of the earliest human cultures.”

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