Is Big Better?

Depending on whom you ask and in what context you ask them, big may be felt to be better. But what about in communication? Does it behove you to utilize colossal or minuscule words when expressing your thoughts in written form?  Say what? Should you use big or small words when writing?  That’s better.

An online group that I’m in got into a long and sometimes testy discussion about this recently.

Some felt that, as writers, it was their duty to challenge the readers, to force them to look up the writer’s carefully chosen word in a dictionary before the reader can understand the writer and continue to read.

If it worked this way, it would be good.   It would lead to a more literate society.  However, it rarely works that way.  When the reader has to stop and do something, like find a dictionary, to understand what’s being read, the reader’s train of thought is destroyed and he/she quickly loses interest.

And remember – why do we write?  To show off our education or our ability to come up with big synonyms for perfectly good small words? Maybe that’s why you write.  But most writers write to be read.  If their work is not read it is a waste of time.

The topic you’re writing about dictates what words you will use.

If you are writing about some complex medical heart procedure, you will,of course, use words common to that branch of medicine.  If you do not, you will not be writing for that client very long.  But the average person will not understand half of what you write and that’s OK.

Now, if you are writing a thriller, it will hardly be viewed as a page turner if the reader is forced to the dictionary every page or so. Here you would use short fast words to keep the story moving along at high speed. This type of writing will generally be at the 7th or 8th grade reading level.

Similarly, if you are writing marketing materials, you will write for the audience at which this material is aimed.  For most consumer products and many business-to business products or services the writing will again be at the 7/8th grade level.  If a consumer or business client can not easily understand what you have written they may move along to the next product or service.

You may feel that executives expect flowery language in marketing materials because of the cost.  And some do. However,  rarely will an executive or highly educated person object to writing that uses short words and short paragraphs.  They like it because they can grasp the concepts quickly without worrying about whether they really understand what’s been written.

So use your judgement and, when in doubt, use short words and paragraphs.  Everyone will know what you’re talking about. The KISS principle applies here.

Is A Picture Really Worth 1000 Words?

This has become one of the firmly held Truths of the modern age.  And like many such seemingly wise sayings it is frequently attributed to Confucius.  However, admen developed the saying in the early 1920s when they were selling ad space on streetcars. They discovered that a picture (image) helped to increase the sales of whatever they were selling.

Techies would like us to believe that images will take over as the communication means in the future.  We will not need to use words or know how to write.  It will all be images.  The current semi-illiterate texting on smart phones may bear them out.

However, let’s get back to basics.  Is a picture (image) really worth 1000 words when it comes to selling or other types of communications?

I picked some ads from a magazine and removed the words (copy) to see how effectively the pictures would sell the product.

Below is a reasonably good image of a wine bottle with some words (even the picture needs words) to help sell whatever the ad is selling.  Not doing a great job?  What is the ad selling? Wine? Italian lessons?  You have no idea.

Now here’s the complete ad.  Ah –ha.  The ad is for a credit card and has nothing to do with wine.

Let’s look at another ad to see how well just the picture sells the product.  This is an intriguing picture (image).  Is it an ad for a safari? There you are with your iPad in hand leading your bearers carrying your stuff in suitcases deep into the trackless jungle.  Well dressed bearers too.

Maybe it’s not an ad for a safari.  That’s it.  It’s an ad for suitcases.  Ones you have to carry on your head so they don’t get messed up in the jungle as you follow your safari leader.

So, it’s selling suitcases you take on safari

Well, no.  It’s not that either.  Let’s see what happens when we add back the words (copy).

Now the ad makes sense.   It’s an ad for a bank.  Credit Suisse will lend you money to buy safari suitcases and go on safari.

One more.  This one puts some words (copy) in the image to help you understand what it is they are trying to sell you.  How effective is that?  You tell me.

You got it.  They are trying to get you into the stock market.  This guy and gal will take your hard-earned cash and put it in the market for you and make you rich.  Right?

Or is it an ad by the SEC cautioning you not to give your money to these two but to call so that they can arrest them.  See, he’s checking that nobody’s watching.

But when we add in the copy, the story changes.

Now you get it.  In the fine print CDW is telling you that they are in the Securities business.  And I thought they sold reasonably priced laptops in a warehouse environment.  But wait.   They’re not in the securities business.  They are selling hardware to the crooked guy and gal so that they can rip you off faster and more reliably.  Now it’s clear.

So, copy is still king.  Copy puts the picture in context. Without the copy the image is meaningless.  With the copy the picture helps you avoid having to write a Dickensian length description of the multi-screen set up the crooked guy and gal are using to get your money.

So next time some client tells you that he/she wants lots of pictures and minimum copy to sell the product or service show him these and ask him if he/she wants to subject his customers to this type of mental exercise.  Or would he/she like them to understand the benefits the product or service offers and send him/her money.

And remind the client that he/she hired you to help sell and not entertain.