Descriptive Words — How to bring ideas to life.

February 14, 2023
7 min read
Photo by Tiard Schulz on Unsplash
“He wasn’t that good looking, he had the social skills of a wet cat and the patience of a caffeinated humming bird.”
— Karen Chance

Ideas merely stated aren’t enough. We need to see, smell, taste, feel. Then ideas become real.

In author Karen Chance’s description of a less than positive first impression, we smell impatient irritation. We edge away from the volatile unpredictability. In one descriptive sentence we receive a world of sense impressions. It’s impossible to not feel emotional response. Written words coming real.

When we think of the words in the average business presentation though, verbal vivacity is better summed up by artist Gerhard Richter: “Grey is the color… the most important of all… absent of opinion, nothing, neither/nor.”

Business presenters who inspire action are far from gray. 

We might not always like or agree with what they say, but we still hear when they say it. Their messages find us while other presenters fade into the background.

Vivid description is a bright spotlight. It makes things tangible to our senses. It triggers recall and moves us to action. 

What though if your message is of a bad news variety that you’d frankly rather went unnoticed? (Politics anyone?) In this case, deliberately toning down the description and fading to gray has precisely this effect. Your content becomes a shell. ‘Absent opinion, nothing, neither/nor.’

Full force color or shades of gray is a conscious choice. 

Feel it. Know it. Do it.

Emotion is essential to action.

Successful presenting isn’t just about what you want the audience to know. Humans aren’t logical. You need to consider feelings and attitudes. That’s why great stories are flavored with vivid descriptions. 

Our brains respond to vivid words and actions. Descriptive phrasing lights up the parts of the brain that deals with the senses and emotions.

To make people move, you need to work out which emotions you need to work with. How does the audience feel about your message? What do you want them to feel about it? The recipe to get them from point A to point B is where sensory language does it’s work.

Here are four easy ways to bring flavor to your content:


Facts (and certain green vegetables) might be wholesome, but without the zesty zing of descriptive seasoning, fail to appeal.

Adjective lists, like this one, provide a spice cabinet of description.

When we add descriptive adjectives, facts come to life.


A literal ‘spice cabinet of description’ would be strange indeed. A metaphorical one however? That would work.

Metaphor take the qualities of one item, and applies them to another. It’s a sensory transfusion.


If math is more your taste than metaphor, you might prefer a formula: 

‘A is to B, as C is to D’ =  ‘Flavor is to food as description is to meaning’

Analogy adds scientific rigor and a sense of logic to the flavor of metaphor.


All this talk about food might be making you hungry. Maybe you skipped lunch. You might be little irritable and angry. You might even say you're therefore ‘hangry’.

Blending the front of one word with the back-end of another creates vivid description, with the added appetizer of novelty.

Make ideas habitable

Bringing words to life by using description is known as ‘ornamentation’. The same discipline is used by architects. Having designed a new building, architects take time to design pleasing visual elements. These ornaments take the building from cement and steel and glass block, and turn it into a place people want to inhabit.

Architects are also careful that none of those ornaments detract from the function.

The same applies to ornamentation in speaking. Good description builds form , without cluttering function. As French writer Luc de Clapiers put it: “Clearness ornaments profound thoughts.” In choosing descriptions lean initially towards the toned-down. You can then test the effect on your audience and gradually build-up.

Experiment with flavor. Find the descriptive blend that works for you.

Peter Watts is a Senior Instructional Designer and Facilitator. He works on both fassforward's Live, Live/online and tailored programs. Peter is fassforward's lead instructional designer for Live/online experiences which deliver mission-critical leadership and communications training, globally, at scale.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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