Are Images or Words More Powerful in Writing? An Experiment.

Full disclosure: I wrote this in the middle of an intense migraine. It’s either really good or really bad. I’ve lost all objectivity at this point.

This week, I’d like to try an experiment and get some feedback from you on a particular topic that’s been rolling around in my brain.

I’m currently in the middle of reading Walter Isaacson’s book on Leonardo Da Vinci, and just came across something I thought was interesting: Da Vinci thought words were less powerful than pictures.

As a writer, when I read this, I instantly got a little defensive. My eyebrows knitted together. My mouth got tiny.

“Words are magical...how dare you, Leonardo!” I thought to myself.

But I kept reading, like the good little reader I am.

Da Vinci said:

“If you, O poet, tell a story with your pen, the painter with his brush can tell it more easily, with simpler completeness, and less tedious to follow. Take a poet who describes the charms of a woman to her lover, and a painter who represents her, and you will see where nature leads the enamored critic.”

Basically, Da Vinci’s reason for favoring images over words is fairly common sense: It’s easier to understand a picture than to read and process words on a page.

You’ve probably seen the stat (I know I’ve seen it 444,594 times on the internet) that the human brain can process images about 60,000 times faster than text.

This is true: It’s much easier and faster to glean meaning from an image (or video, in a modern context) than it is to digest written words, interpret their meaning, and then formulate a mental picture.

But here’s the thing.

The written word leaves a lot more room for personal interpretation than a visual does.

When we lean more heavily on images with our audiences and rely less and less on words, we squash some of those moments in which readers can use their own brains. We give them fewer opportunities to fill in the gaps and to paint mental pictures of their own. And that can be powerful.

Now, with that said:

  • I know that especially in the online environment, attention spans are short--yes.

  • I know that words on words don’t make sense in some environments that need to accomplish very specific goals--yes.

  • There is a lot of research that says VIDEO IS THE FUTURE--yes.

BUT!

I also know the more I read, the more I enjoy building out my own mental images for stories that are informed by my own unique life experiences.

This is especially true around people in the stories being told.

In a way, isn’t that one of the highest forms of personalization? Allowing the reader the chance to put their own faces to marketing personas and characters--without the help of stock images or illustrations or explainer videos that try to assign meaning for them?

Images and videos are a shortcut to communication, but they have their own set of strings attached.

Here’s what I mean in context. (Note: Make sure you have images turned on for this email so you see the photo referenced.)

The image:

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The words:

Every year, when fall came, I’d go to the backyard to water my favorite tree. The grass, by that time, had already lost its green, waxy sheen and transformed into a brown and crispy carpet. It crunched under my feet. The water pail, an old silver pitcher, was heavy in my eight-year-old-arms. The water sloshed and splashed over its metal sides as I struggled to carry it. Pouring cautiously with my legs wide and braced to steady myself, I let the water rush out around the base of the tree.

Notice that while the image provides a lot of visual cues, it also establishes some underlying information about the story as a whole, such as:

  • The person in the photo is a girl

  • The girl in the photo is caucasian

If your goal is to have the reader visualize him/her/their self within the story you’re telling, the image creates a bit of an exclusionary environment--and it makes it harder for that to happen.

You’re telling the reader what to see, rather than letting them dream up a mental picture of their own.

To summarize...

It doesn’t always make sense to wax poetic and ramble on--but I do think it’s important to pause and consider whether your images are helping or hurting the story you’re trying to tell.

We should all work to be more inclusive as we tell stories, build characters, and generally speak to our audiences.

And that means thinking deeply about how we communicate--both with words and images.

Now it’s question time. I want your two cents on this:

Which one do YOU find more powerful? The photo, or the words? Tweet me @Kaleighf.


This article originally appeared in my newsletter, A Cup of Copy. Sign up and get these free tips sent right to your inbox every other Wednesday.