Do you have a preferred representational system?

Most of us have one or two preferred representational systems that we use at least a bit more than the others. These are the systems we tend to think in, and that we pay the most conscious attention to.

For example, my wife Jules pays a lot more attention to visual information than I do – she’s great at matching colours, choosing decor, and remembering faces. My natural preference is more to the auditory; I’m pretty good at recognising people by their voices, remembering tunes, and I pay a lot of attention to voice tone and how things sound.

Here’s a caution by the way: I sometimes read about people who’ve done some NLP applying ‘visual’, ‘auditory’ or ‘kinaesthetic’ as an identity-level label, as if people couldn’t process the other representational systems. I’ve even heard of some schools, who have maybe gone overboard on the idea of ‘learning styles‘, having labels on kid’s desks saying ‘Visual’ or ‘Auditory’, the idea being that the teacher is supposed to teach to this child only using their preferred style.

Apart from complicating the job of teaching, this kind of labelling is not helpful – pretty much everyone can visualise, for example, even if they are not consciously aware of it. Otherwise, how does the supposedly ‘auditory’ person find her way home each afternoon? I’m pretty sure it’s not by walking around randomly until she finds a house that sounds right.

In particular, please don’t label yourself as ‘an auditory’ or ‘a visual’ at the identity level. Very occasionally I’ve run across someone who says “I can’t visualise, I’m a kinaesthetic”. That’s just what we call in NLP “false identification”, where a person limits themselves by identifying with a particular label. Anyone off the street can see images in their mind, and here’s someone who’s been on an NLP course and claims they can’t! NLP should be about increasing flexibility, not reducing it.

Here’s a tip though – I never ask someone to visualise something, for the very reason that the word ‘visualise’ might be a negative anchor for some people. Instead, if I want them to see a picture in their mind, I might ask them ‘what do you see?’ – which presupposes that they do see something.

Image: Fennec Fox by yvonne n via Wikipedia

© 2012 – 2019, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Simon Raybould

    At last! An NLPer who doesn’t get sucked in by the VAK model rubbish! 🙂

    There’s some interesting research evidence coming out of Newcastle Uni which compares the effectiveness of including the VAK model in teaching. The percentage increase in learning for the pupils was…




    1. Andy Smith

      I think all our readers would appreciate a link to that research, Dr Raybould – if one is available yet of course.

  2. Keith

    Andy, I really enjoy your simple and easily digestible answers. Can I ask a reasonable man a reasonable question?

    When presenting, is it presumed that we should first connect with the Kinaesthetic, then Audio, then visuals within the audience?

    If this is the case, why? And, is there any evidence/research to support this?

    1. Andy Smith

      This was what I was told on my NLP trainer’s training. In practice I’ve not found it worked that well, possibly because focusing on the K-A-V sequence took my attention away from other important considerations.

      The pattern was supposed to be modelled from great orators such as Martin Luther King and JFK. I listened to the openings of some of their famous speeches and didn’t find them conforming to that pattern particularly.

      What I have found useful is to start off slowly, and gradually speed up. This is what would also happen if you were really getting into K, then A, then V (as opposed to just using words to fit the different representational systems).

      Thinking in pictures is faster because of the amount of information you can get into a visual image versus words or feelings (‘a picture is worth a thousand words’). So someone starting up in K, then moving through A to V would speed up.

      The virtue of starting slow before you speed up is that people who naturally ‘run’ at a slower speed will feel alienated if someone is talking too rapidly ‘at’ them. If you start slow and maintain rapport, they will come with you as you speed up.

      This tip is particularly useful, then, for speakers who habitually talk and think fast, who might otherwise never engage a significant segment of their audience. Of course, someone who starts slow and remains slow will probably lose the quick thinkers in the audience eventually.

      No research at all to support the ‘V-A-K’ start as far as I know, but as usual I’m happy to be corrected.

      1. Keith

        Thanks Andy, I thank you for your concise, detailed response. I will digest your reply and will respond accordingly. Thank you for your time

      2. Robert de Quelen

        Hi Andy,

        Starting slowly and accelerating progressively sounds simple yet this is such a good piece of advice. A fast thinker and speaker, I have trained myself to take a slower start so as to make sure I get everyone on board, an this has proven quite effective. Besides, it gives me time to connect wth my audience in a way that would not be possible if I was just focusing on what I want to say. This being said, people really Do have different learning modes, and hy it is ridiculous to use either of these exclusively, ebing sensitive to their preferred mode is a sign of respect and it is helpful for those who do not follow the mode of the majority.

  3. Rosie O'Hara

    Great article Andy. For me I think that being aware of why conversations can go wrong is a good reason to be aware of sensory rep systems.
    And I so agree about not asking someone to visualise.
    Go well

  4. Peter

    From my perspective, more emphasis should be placed on audio digital that is my preferred representational style or am I in a minority?

    1. Andy Smith

      Thanks Peter – you probably are in a minority, although a significant one. Without people skilled in thinking in an auditory-digital way we would still be living in caves!

      As a style of communication it can be taken too far though, as outside a specialist audience people will lose attention since it’s not easy to form internal sensory representations of auditory-digital language. Also for the same reason it can lend itself to the kind of gobbledegook that the Plain English Campaign was set up to fight – see the example in this post.

  5. Hala


    I can see the discussion goes back to a very long time nevertheless interesting. I was directed here when I was searching how to do anchoring in different representational systems.
    Can someone please help in how to do that? any examples? I can’t seem to find any info around.

    Thank you,

    1. Andy Smith

      Hi Hala,

      Good question! Anchoring in different representational systems, if I’ve understood your question correctly, is just a matter of setting up ‘triggers’ or cues for the desired response in your chosen representational system. For example:

      Visual triggers:
      – looking at a photograph
      – calling up a visual memory
      – designing an ‘icon’ that you can use to represent the desired state
      – a symbol, e.g. a cross or a crescent are powerful symbols in their respective religions

      Auditory triggers:
      – a particular word
      – a particular tune that you can play in your head

      Kinesthetic (touch) triggers:
      – a physical gesture
      – a touch on a particular knuckle
      – the texture of some object that you carry with you

      You can also combine these triggers – e.g. seeing a picture while saying the word.

      I hope that helps.

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