Show, don’t tell

Show, don’t tell featured image

Why investors to consumers respond to images.

Humans are visual beings. The first figurative art is at least 40,000 years old and is contemporaneous with the development of the earliest recognisably human cultures.In contrast, writing was invented not much more than 5,000 years ago. For the vast majority of humankind’s time on Earth when we wanted to convey an enduring idea we did it using a visual image.

We’re wired for communicating in a highly visual manner. Yet today the written word is the dominant way we communicate. For lots of things that’s great. It is expert at doing it’s job. Almost all of us can remember at least 2,000 pictures with 90% accuracy. Would we be better off to show, not tell?

The science supports the power of the visual. When you see an image your brain responds to it twice, first as a pure visual image (“a green sphere”) and second as a verbal code or translation of what you have seen (“the image I have just seen is an apple”). In comparison, when you read text you only have the latter. As a result of this “double response” images embed into our minds more effectively than words in a phenomenon called the Pictorial Superiority Effect:

Images are also quicker and easier for your brain to process in comparison to text. A visual image is captured and translated by the brain very quickly (under 150 milliseconds per image) and generally without any conscious effort on your behalf. In contrast you see text letter by letter, with your brain then going through the laborious task of building each letter into discrete words and then translating those words into meaningful information. The more words you have, the longer and more tiring this process becomes.

This suggests that images get and keep attention. And indeed, this is borne out by the data. Articles with images every 75 – 100 words are twice as likely to be shared on social media as text only articles. Facebook updates with images are 2.3x more likely to be shared.

But images also clarifiy what we mean to say. Many purely text emails can suffer from a ‘ negativity effect ’, which happens when the message is interpreted more negatively than intended. Emoji are one common solution to communicate a big part of that nonverbal communication. Their popularity has grown to the point that, as far as the internet-using population is concerned, 78% of women and 60% of men use emojis on frequent basis.

Of course, not all visuals are created equal. Every image or visualisation is intended to do something: convey a message, highlight a choice, illustrate a range of potential outcomes. Getting the image right is powerful. Getting it wrong can be disastrous, creating confusion, muddying the waters and becoming a source of misinformation.

The art and science of visual communication.

We see this downside more and more often in the proliferation of presentations and infographic “templates”. They are beguiling in their ease of use and dazzling in their design (sometimes).But they very often fail at their central function of communicating. Visualising every issue in the same way everytime just means you get the same answer everytime. If you’re a hammer, then every problem is a nail.

This sort of cookie-cutter approach also falls foul of the Distinctiveness Effect. We are more likely to recall unusual or unique information. Falling into the trap of using a template that looks beautiful, but looks like everyone else, will not be effective. In fact, it will have the opposite effect of rendering your message less memorable.

What does all this mean? Get visual, and ask Hoist to help! We are passionate about using the power of the visual to drive better business outcomes. This can be anything from an amazing branding and market activation through to developing images that powerfully convey strategic choices and deliver incisive decision making tools for senior leaders. We combine art and science, coupling cutting edge creative work with design thinking principles and data driven analysis. This gives us the insight to create unique visuals that demonstrate it’s definitely better to show, not tell.

To follow up this conversation or to find out what Hoist is working on, email