Which works best for effective communication: words or pictures?
Ever since the first Neanderthal Banksy graffitied his next-cave neighbour’s wall we’ve had pictures. But even today, no one knows for certain what the purpose of our ancestors’ artwork was. Some academics claim they were a form of ‘hunting magic’ – a way to increase success on the hunt – while others believe they were drawn by shamans in a trance-like state (arguably, one of the first cons, but that’s another story).
There are those that say it was purely for didactic reasons, while it might be as simple as plain storytelling. They’re images that to this day still have people talking. They paint a thousand words, of course, but they’re words of constant conjecture. A well-constructed sentence or a killer headline accompanying the pictures would have left us in no doubt as to their meaning.
A herd of deer being chased by a couple of spear-wielding blokes makes an instant visual impact, but where are the specifics? If early man could have captioned his paintings – ‘I scares ’em; Dave spears ’em’ – we’d know so much more about our ancestors. Pictures start the conversation, but words give us the clarity, they give us the specifics, they deliver the message clearly.
Language has had thousands of years to evolve
Hieroglyphics, runes, the Phoenician and Greek alphabets, numerous forms of Latin, Germanics, Old English, Middle English have all helped us to get where we are today. If we can’t get our message across with the abundance/cornucopia/plethora/surfeit of words we now have at our disposal, then there is something seriously wrong/amiss/bad/tragic/rotten in the state of Denmark.
Today, we’re still part of that eternal evolution. We have buzzwords, the zeitgeist turn of phrase, the Americanisation, the social media-influenced move to brevity and phonetically simplified words. Why write ‘though’ when you can write ‘tho’? Any T,D/H (Tom, Dick or Harry) can invent a word and watch it journey towards its Mecca – the OED.
The creation of vocabulary is not just the property of academics anymore, it belongs to all of us. Whether there’s longevity in it, only generations to follow will be able to answer. YOLO and bouncebackability might not be around forever but, like it or not, they are part of our language. It’s always been organic, so best not to get too snooty. As far as today’s communication is concerned if your audience understands what you are getting at then it works.
Hygge (n): “A quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being”. Orig. Denmark
They’re only words: Hygge will be added to the OED in September this year along with other words including ‘Tennis Mom’, but how many editions will they last?
After the cave came perspective and a load of -isms
Pictures, of course, have had their own evolution, too. After the cave came carvings, frescos, mosaics, Christian-inspired medieval art, the Renaissance (where artists literally got some perspective), Romanticism, Impressionism, a load more -isms and then, in the late 19th century, Kodak and the camera came along and changed everything.
So now we have high-quality digital photos so advanced they can show the tears of crying ants on a clifftop 500 metres away. We have more words than we know what to do with and still they come. We have print, online, social media, blogs and websites to communicate with each other, but who wins? Which is best? Words or pictures?
Judging words vs pictures
Instagram – huge. It’s all about pictures. Faces, fashion, good living, food, ‘LOOK AT ME!’. Win for pictures? But you’re going to need a hashtag to give viewers a lift over. People will want to discuss, to explain their picture, to further the conversation. Pictures, well, they sure are pretty, but words are the workhorse maintaining the land here.
Print – a story opens with a beautiful image of Mr & Mrs Wilson in their picturesque Tuscan vineyard. Striking, but what’s their story? We need to know more. We need some words.
Blog – you’re reading one now but you may not have got this far without some images to liven it up.
The conclusion here is not going to break new ground. It’s a draw. For effective communication, you have to have both. And you have to have the right people to do it. Anyone can write, anyone can take a picture, but how good the individual is at each discipline is everything. And getting the balance right, well that’s the tricky bit.