GREAT leaders and communicators are like great movie directors. They tap your imagination.

James Cameron, in two of the most successful movies of recent years, does it brilliantly. In Titanic, you imagined you were there on that icy cold night in 1912. In Avatar, you were transported to another world — Pandora. The images lived on in your mind long after the movie ended.

If you want to fully engage staff and clients, communicating in a way that cuts through the clatter to create truly memorable messages, then you have to do it through their imagination.

Albert Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Years ago, Richard Branson asked us to imagine booking a flight into space as you would book a plane ticket. He tapped our imaginations and made it seem possible. And last month, trials of Spaceship Two show he is on track, with 530 passengers already booked.


Bring imagination to work

To get the full benefit from your staff, you need them to bring not only their functional brain to work but their imaginative brain as well.

The late Dr Stephen Covey talked about moving staff from a state of willing compliance to one of creative excitement. In many cases, the way to maximise business opportunities and the solutions to problems will be more obvious to your staff than to you.

You want them to imagine how things can be done better in their work. To achieve this, there are a few actions you need to take:


• Validate their input — good and bad. Encourage them to share their ideas and be prepared to let them try. If they form the impression that you will reject any idea that, one, costs money or, two, changes the status quo, they will not offer any ideas.


• Allow them to make mistakes. Dr Ken Robinson said: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.” If they are worried about negative repercussions, they will keep their ideas to themselves.


• Give them more autonomy. Tap their imagination to create a clear vision of what you want them to achieve and let them determine how to do it. This will give them greater ownership of the project.


Help them “see the temple”

This well-known old story tells of a man passing three bricklayers. He asks each in turn: “What are you doing?”

The first makes some insulting remarks and says sarcastically: “I’m laying bricks, of course.” The second replies: “I’m building a wall.” The third says: “I’m building a temple.”

The first bricklayer is totally disengaged, imagining nothing more than one brick on top of the other. The second at least has a goal, but the third bricklayer has a purpose.

We all have a desire to be involved in something greater than ourselves. The truly engaged worker will have a clear image of his purpose and how his work contributes to this. And the great leader will be able to plant that vision in their imagination — to help them see the temple.


The neuroscience of imagination

Three years ago, Princeton University neuroscientists Greg Stephens and Uri Hasson used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to map brain activity when people are engaged in a story.

Surprisingly, they found changes in brain activity during the narrative. Parts of the brain that were previously inactive lit up on the scans when stories were involved.

Psychologists have called this “interactive linguistic alignment” — that time when we share a common conceptual ground because I am able to take something from my imagination to trigger your imagination. And we now have proof that if I can tap your imagination, I am “turning on” a different part of your brain.

The research of Dr Allan Paivio, currently emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, showed that the images that we put in people’s minds have, after one year, eight times the recall level of the words we put there.


Using image-based words

The more words you use that put images in people’s minds, the more you are perceived as charismatic.

Compare this statement from US President Jimmy Carter: “Let our recent mistakes bring a resurgent commitment to the basic principles of our nation” with this one from John F. Kennedy: “Together let us explore the stars, conquer the desert, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths.”

Instead of saying “inquire”, say “explore”; instead of “produce”, use “grow”; instead of “think” say “imagine”.

The ability to tap others’ imaginations will earn you a reputation as a great communicator.


Article by Kevin Ryan, managing director of Training Edge Australia and an international speaker, workshop leader and author with Training Edge International. For more information, e-mail or visit