Today’s post will be interactive. Let’s open with a photo of a Salvador Dali painting.
In the space below, using 1,000 words or less, please write the message this image conveys, in as much detail as possible.
You have a few minutes. I’ll wait.
Your answer here:
Time’s Up. Pencils Down
Show of hands. Who among you wrote, “This painting summarizes the life work of Dr. Maxwell Maltz?”
No one? But that’s what the painting’s owner says it means. How can that be that none of us “got it?” Isn’t a picture worth a thousand words? Confucius told us that.
Or did he?
There is no mention of the value of an illustration in the Analects of Confucius, nor in the Five Classics.
Hummm. Maybe it wasn’t Confucius.
Xing Lu? Sun Tzu, maybe? Or perhaps it was just some anonymous Chinese author steeped in antiquity.
In the December 8, 1921 issue of Printer’s Ink, Fred R. Barnard coined the phrase “One look is worth a thousand words,” to promote the use of images in streetcar ads.
Five years later, also in Printer’s Ink, Barnard wrote, “One picture is worth ten thousand words.” Barnard is quoted in The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Familiar Phrases as admitting he made up the saying and called it “a Chinese proverb, so that people would take it seriously.”
It didn’t take long for our popular culture to credit Confucius as the author.
But discrediting the source doesn’t invalidate the idea.
Let’s consider the “one picture” concept at work. The painting depicted a few paragraphs ago was created by Salvador Dali for his close friend, the late Dr. Maxwell Maltz, creator of Psycho Cybernetics.
According to Maltz:
“When the great artist Salvador Dali wanted to express his feelings about Pyscho Cybernetics, and thank me for my influence on his life, he painted a magnificent picture: a figure of a man coming out of the dark shadows into the bright sunlight, sharing this space with a sailboat being guided toward its destination. He summarized my books and lectures into a single powerful painting. I was again awestruck at the way a single picture can do the work of thousands of words.” (Emphasis mine).
And yet, none of us wrote anything close to “This painting summarizes the life work of Dr. Maxwell Maltz.”
A Picture Is Not Worth A Thousand Words.
Perhaps you’d be kind enough to show me a picture that clearly and unequivocally says something as simple as “no.” Every two-year-old knows how to convey “no.” He says it.
Back to the Maltz quote. It came from Zero Resistance Selling, a book posthumously accredited to Dr. Maltz and five co-writers. He also supposedly said:
“Pictures, horrible pictures, sold the American public on demanding the Viet Nam war be ended. Pictures, terrible pictures, of poorly fed, emaciated, mistreated children inspire us to donate millions of dollars to organizations that feed, clothe, medicate and educate the deprived children of the world. Pictures of exotic, beautiful, romantic beaches and oceans make Hawaii the dream vacation of thousands of people, who then scrimp and save and budget and plan for years for the trip of a lifetime. The picture of Michael Dukakis, clumsily perched on a tank, did much to nip his Presidential campaign in the bud. Pictures of beautiful people sell millions of dollars of perfumes, cosmetics, and clothing. Evidence abounds demonstrating the power of pictures.” *
Take one of those shots of Vietnamese orphans, show it to any group of people, and see whether even a single individual says, “This photograph is a powerful argument on why the U.S. should get out of Viet Nam.”
Visuals can be powerful in conveying very coarse, very raw emotion, but pictures can only reinforce the message already conveyed by the words.
Show me a picture that can accurately convey the ideas of Robert Frost, John Lennon, or Thomas Jefferson.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one”
– John Lennon, Imagine
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
– Thomas Jefferson, the American Declaration of Independence
In A Thousand Words
In a thousand words we can state the Pythagorean Theorem, The Lord’s Prayer, Archimedes Principle, The Ten Commandments, the Gettysburg address, Alfred Lord Tennison’s Crossing The Bar, the Boy Scout Oath, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and still have 174 words left over.
No, a picture is not worth a thousand words. It’s not even close.
If your objective is persuasion, hire a copywriter. When it comes to fishing for customers, words are the stronger bait.