Let’s talk pictures

Humans are wired for pictures, but that doesn’t mean we should stop writing.

Fifty per cent of the human brain is involved in visual processing, and 70 per cent of our sensory receptors are in our eyes.

So why do I bother writing? Because I can’t draw. And clients I work for have lots to say, little of which can be distilled in a picture that might be worth 1,000 words.

Sometimes I hire designers to increase my chances of getting an audience, but words must do the grunt work and make people think differently.

Thank goodness the right words activate the visual system.

Fire engine, cat, milk, blood, snow, coal, teeth, banana. These concrete nouns paint vivid pictures – they make people see and understand.

Perhaps that is why when people understand they say, “I see”.

However, the trouble is, businesses deal with lots of complex information. They’ve got to explain new products and services, how they help clients solve tricky problems, why they work differently, how they put their assets to work, and so on.

It’s gutsy stuff that marks the heart and soul of an organisation. It also encourages communicators to reach for words with ‘higher’ meaning – abstractions – to do their stories justice.

The word ‘abstraction’ is itself an abstraction. You can’t see it. It appeals to the intellect rather than the senses.

Abstract words like leverage, downsizing, collaboration, unification, and other ‘tions’ pepper business language. Layered thick, these words make eyes glaze over and deafen ears.

Here’s an extreme example of abstraction overload – possibly the worst press release ever written. Try spotting a single concrete noun.

Ra’anana, Israel – May 27 2014 – Pontis Ltd, the leading provider of Continuous Contextual Engagement solutions optimizing personalized contextual marketing for Communication Service Providers (CSPs), today announced the launch of a new contextual analytics, engagement and execution solution, which increases mobile data service adoption, opens new monetization opportunities with OTT partners, and optimizes customers’ service experience. Read more if you dare

Did you get to the end? I doubt it.

The ladder of abstraction, popularised by S.I. Hayakawa in his book Language in Action, is a useful model for choosing the right words. At the top of the ladder, language is general and abstract. It provokes thinking, but offers little concrete evidence. The bottom of the ladder rests on concrete terms and colourful details. Step off the ladder and feel the warm concrete on the cracked soles of your feet.

In my mind, businesses spend too much time near the top of the ladder. Sometimes it is necessary to climb that high, but get back down quickly before you lose your audience.