When writing commercial messages, the phrase ‘Seeing is believing’ rings emphatically true. People who write in pictograms transmit their message so much more efficiently. Whilst the late David Ogilvy thundered that, “70% of communication is visual”, words alone can fuel potent, pictorial ideas.
In politics, they say you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. To which I’d add, you’re remembered in pictures. Think of Thatcher, Blair, Clinton or Nixon. First memories that bubble up are nearly always an image. Winston Churchill, on speechwriting, delivered a 17 word summary of what makes good writing in any sphere: “Begin strongly; Have one theme; Use simple language; Leave a picture in the listener’s mind; End dramatically.” A master of language, he knew the value of the visual.
I remember reading a powerful critique of US President’s inaugural addresses. After months, if not years, of grinding away at the electoral stump, the job is to whip up the electorate with an inspirational speech on Day One.
The illuminating example I remember was between Jimmy Carter and John F Kennedy with two, slightly random, excerpts to make the case. First, Jimmy Carter:
“Let our recent mistakes bring a resurgent commitment to the basic principles of our nation, for we know that, if we despise our own government, we have no future.”
A typical sentence from John F Kennedy’s oration reads: “Together, let us explore the stars, conquer the desert, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.”
The accomplished and well-meaning Jimmy Carter spoke in concepts. His constructions are dry and theoretical. Kennedy spoke in pictures (stars, desert, ocean depths). A pro-rata approval rating of Kennedy’s support versus Carter’s shows him to have been consistently way ahead throughout his presidency. The era, television sophistication and myriad other factors obviously played a part, but JFK’s speeches remain rich in imagery. They carried him an incredibly long way. Language that evokes something you can see is truly weapons-grade.
As a copywriter, you get bashed on the head with the ‘Pictures-paint-a-thousand-words’ expression all the time. Usually by art directors. I wouldn’t disagree but, by return, I think a single word can paint a million pictures. ‘Christ’, for example or ‘Diana’ or ‘Afghanistan’…
Years ago, my dad was struck by a woman shouting eagerly to her husband at a Boxing Day drinks party, “Darling, these people live where we turn left!” For all its caricature, it also revealed how we place people in our view of life. I don’t know about you, but I remember my childhood almost as a series of photographs. The more successful funeral addresses are those that conjure vivd impressions of the subject. We are invited to look back at the departed through a gallery of recollections. In memory, I really believe it is the eyes that have it.
It doesn’t mean having to resort to tired metaphor or laboured simile. It just simply helps enormously to think visually.
In other words, the best copywriters are seen as much as heard.