March 5, 2009

Pictures Really Are Worth A Thousands Words

One of my favorite graphics is printed on shiny paper, folds up small enough to fit in my pocket, and is given away free. It’s the London subway map. It’s a brilliant graphic because it gives you a clear, information-rich view of an unbelievably complex system. Imagine trying to write a handbook describing the London underground for tourists and travelers and you’ll see what a hopeless task it would be.

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Pictures Really Are Worth A Thousands Words

In the 1920s, Fred Barnard, an advertising executive, tried to convince his customers that adding pictures to the placards in streetcars would make their ads more effective. As evidence, he cited a Chinese proverb: “A picture is worth ten thousand words.” Thus a cliché entered the English language—although the ratio of words to picture was mysteriously reduced by a factor of 10 along the way.

What the Chinese characters that Barnard showed actually state is something a bit different. They literally say, “A picture’s meaning can express ten thousand words.” That’s a different claim, one that emphasizes the interdependence of words and graphics. Properly chosen, words and graphics can combine to create a powerful message that transcends either medium alone.

For years I’ve cited a study done by the University of Minnesota that showed adding a graphic to a piece of text increases the perceived persuasiveness of the text by 47%. I’ve urged people to include graphics in their proposals, particularly in the presentation of their value proposition. There’s nothing you want to be more persuasive than your value proposition, so that’s the place to show the bar chart, the trend curve, or the pie chart to illustrate the positive impact your solutions will have.

The value of good graphics has long been understood in other fields. Attorneys spend huge amounts to create video simulations and graphic displays to influence juries. In one notorious instance, John Gotti’s defense attorney stood before the jury with a simple table showing the names of all seven witnesses who had testified against the mob boss. All seven had become government informants, receiving immunity in exchange for their testimony. In the table, Gotti’s attorney listed all the crimes they had committed, including multiple counts of murder, kidnapping, extortion, bribery, and more. In total they had 69 different convictions. The graphic’s meaning was clear. The witnesses were sleazebags, felons and thugs; their testimony was worthless. Interestingly, this chart was the only piece of evidence the jury asked to review during their deliberations. Gotti was acquitted.

This vivid and disturbing example of the persuasive power of a good graphic comes from Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. This is one of the four books he has written on the art and power of effective visual display. (The other three are The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Beautiful Evidence.) Tufte has become almost a cult figure for his insightful and provocative opinions about the potential for excellent graphics—charts, illustrations, and so on—to convey content quickly, persuasively and powerfully.

Tufte can be cranky in his opinions. He has attacked PowerPoint as evil, argues that most of the illustrations in the New York Times and USA Today are filled with “chartjunk,” and rails that most graphics assume the reader is stupid. On the other hand, he has demonstrated the impact that poor design can have, including a convincing analysis that poorly designed charts misled NASA engineers into believing the 1986 launch of the space shuttle Columbia was safe.

As a thorough-going left brainer, I struggle to think visually the way Tufte does. But I do understand his key points and I no longer feel satisfied using the typical garish charts generated from a spreadsheet or the cheesy clip art that comes with our slide-generating software. Some of the things I’ve learned from Tufte that can help us as persuasive communicators:

1. Graphics should be interesting in their own right.

2. Graphics should be content rich, dense with information, and should include multiple dimensions and variables.

3. Graphics should force us to make “wise visual comparisons” and should show causality.

4. Words, numbers and images should be integrated on the page, never broken up by lodging all the graphics at the end of the document or on a different page from where they are discussed.

Another important point that Tufte constantly reiterates is that your presentation—both the words and the graphics—succeeds or fails based on the accuracy, quality, and relevance of your content. This fundamental truth takes us back to the wisdom of the Chinese proverb: it’s the harmony of word and image that creates the most powerful impression.

With Sant Suite you can integrate graphics with your words easily and quickly. We even provide a built-in means for demonstrating your value proposition visually. Check out the interactive, Web-based demos on our site, With the right graphics, you may be able to save 10,000 words, and won’t that come in handy when you have a tight page limit?

No comments: