« Point of view matters | Main | How to create a non-fiction bestseller »

Too Many Words

A picture really is worth a thousand words, especially when you're trying to get information or knowledge to go from your head into someone else's. You can talk all day, but that sketch on the back of the napkin can suddenly make it all clear. When you're communicating, you have a thought bubble over your head with a representation of what you're trying to convey, and the listener/receiver has a thought bubble over his head with a representation of what he thinks about what you're saying. The big question is, do they match?

If you use only words, there's a way better chance that the picture over the listener's head won't match. And sometimes even the subtlest difference is a deal-killer. But it's not just accuracy you get from using pictures... you get speed. This picture from our servlets book, for example, did in a two-page spread what would have taken me many pages and several thousand words to explain with the same depth of understanding. Pagesample

Pictures save time.

And here's a third benefit: the brain likes them, so you have a better chance of getting past the brain's crap filter using pictures than words alone.

For learning, there's a ton of research that supports using visuals. In one set of ten studies, people who learned from graphics and words together produced between 55 percent to 121 percent more correct solutions to transfer problems than people who learned from words alone (Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer).

And I've talked before about how the effectiveness of words goes down as your audience gets younger, and/or has a brain raised in an increasingly visually rich environment. Remember, while those over 45 will generally say that pictures are used simply to support a text (but the text is primary), most twenty-somethings say that they'd be just as happy (or happier) if the text were there only when required to support the pictures. The pictures rule.

If you're like me--a communicator/teacher/blogger who isn't necessarily a writer, make sure you spend more time figuring out how to incorporate visuals. Use a graphics program, or use a digital camera and a whiteboard to just put in drawings like this one (a mind-map we made while talking to book authors about how to choose what should go in a chapter):Whiteboard

Consider this exercise we give our authors: before you write something, ask yourself "What could I do in a visual form (photo, illustration, cartoon, whatever) that would make this point?" and see if you can do it. If you don't know a graphics program, start learning. It's the 21st century, and I believe that skill with visual/graphic tools (you don't have to be a designer!) should be right up there with typing and writing. Just something everyone knows how to do. (Virtually all kids in US schools are getting some training in some form of computer graphics.) Not everyone who writes on a blog is expected to be Hemmingway, and not everyone who creates pictures is expected to be Picasso. Keep thinking back of the napkin sketch. If you're not used to thinking in pictures, it might take a little practice, but before long, you'll wonder how you got along with only words. : )

Posted by Kathy on February 22, 2005 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Too Many Words:

» Too Many Words from elearnspace
Simplicity is one of the greatest approaches to learning design. As course designers/educators, saying something eloquently is often less effective than saying it simply. Incorporating visual elements like mind maps or diagrams can simplify even the mo... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 23, 2005 2:28:38 PM

» Too Many Words (spoil the broth from the OTHER blog
Sometimes I think as usability people, it's our job to mis-understand... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 24, 2005 3:19:08 AM

» Too Many Words? from b.cognosco
Here's a great idea for the graphics-challenged among us. I ran across it over on Creating Passionate Users (found via Innovation Weblog ). It's simple but helpful - if you can't use graphics programs, or don't want to shell out a few hundred dollars for [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 8, 2005 10:59:24 AM

» Thinking from berbs.us
After recently listening to On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee and taking the Imagination course with Dr. Stamp here at UND, I've become fascinated with the human brain and how we actually think and work. Because of this,... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 28, 2005 10:40:20 AM

» Internet Search Engine from Web Search Engines
Blog search engines help you find blogs on the Web on whatever topic you'd like to ... Profile of AltaVista, One of the Oldest Search Engines on the Web... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 27, 2006 7:35:14 AM

» Not Hungry Enough? from Maya Writings
This in-depth analysis of what’s basically flawed with both middle tier and at least one upper tier search engine’s business model is enough to give you the creeps if you happen to be invested in any of the prime contenders. [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 29, 2006 4:22:14 AM


I agree a 100%. Some blog postings ago, I can't remember which post it was, I mentioned the fact elaborate documents (i.e. with well chosen pictures) that I like to write still needed to be 'digested' by the evaluating guys here at work.

...Well they like them more now :-), and the initial investment in making them visually appealing, proves it's value especially when the heat is on, and the grey cells are tuned to speed instead of processing masses of text.

Additionally it gives great satisfaction when these documents are suited both for internal communication as well as for our customers. Visual representation/interpretation is less constrained than it's verbal counterpart.

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Feb 23, 2005 3:29:35 AM

I wonder if you can take it a small step further & say that incorporation of video can often help clarify difficult concepts at a level *beyond* static pictures. This would have been especially true for me in physics & math.


I love the head-first books (and this blog).

Posted by: P-daddy | Feb 23, 2005 7:15:31 AM

Working in an academic environment has had its challenges for those of us into the betterment of 'systems' - committees, how to enter marks into the student database etc.

We are still currently in the over 45 environment, where the flowcharts (or whatever visual we are using) are supplementary to the primary text to the extent that the text is the 'paper' and the visuals are the appendicies. It had never occurred to me before that this was largely an age thing. It is also somewhat of an academia thing, but age plays a great part.

We are trying to move to an environment where the flowcharts and the paper and the explanatory text (which I think will be needed for quite a while yet in our slow moving sphere)is the appendix.

I'm still in the land of people wanting me to order the pages with the text first, but I think with a little patience and learning how best to diagram for best understanding, we will get there.

I wanted to say that this blog has revitalised my work ethic. Despite working in different sectors, you guys think like I do - it is great. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Kitty | Feb 23, 2005 7:33:31 AM

Visuals are also useful when you want to scan things for something interesting. Majority of your posts begin with cartoon and it lets me know in 3 seconds what the post is about and whether I want to read it right away or not. This is the reason I try to begin my post on my blog [ http://jdk.phpkid.org ] with a picture whenever I can!


Posted by: JD | Feb 23, 2005 8:34:12 AM

Using images is a great way to enhance communications but, my biggest problem with images is; where to find the ones I want?

Could you do an article on where to get some good images to work with?

Google is sort-of-helpful but most of results are not very good quality or the images I am looking for.

Posted by: Stephan F | Feb 23, 2005 10:57:55 AM

Something that isn't adequately touched on here is that there could be more than one reason that visuals are becoming more popular. I suspect one reason is that many people cannot read and write as well as they should. I doubt that schools are adequately teaching logic and essay writing (let alone spelling and grammar). They probably haven't for several decades.

My boyfriend's little brother is a good example of this. Currently his essays are terrible -- a mishmash of confused thoughts over far too wide a scope, whose logic is unclear. I'm coaching him on how to write essays, and his teacher says that he's improved markedly after a single evening teaching him about focus and structure. He's had 4 years of highschool English, and grade school English before that, and nobody has taught the kid how to write an essay or the fundamentals of logic required to do so successfully. He's applying for university and he can't express himself clearly and effectively in writing. That's all too common.

Words and pictures each have their own strengths. While I don't want the return of books without pictures, neither do I want books where the text is reduced to captioning the pictures. How about having words and pictures working in equal partnership, folks?

Posted by: Bronwyn Boltwood | Feb 23, 2005 11:34:26 AM

I agree 100%, but I've always been visually oriented!

I even have an example for you ... I used Seth Godin's "Edgecraft" process from his book, "Free Prize Inside", and created a visual presentation of an "Edgecraft Analysis". It is listed in my blog, www.theshot92.blogspot.com, or downloadable from
From a competitive analysis or positioning point of view, a picture is definitely worth 1000 words - and sometimes more!

Posted by: Dave Wheeler | Feb 23, 2005 12:48:45 PM


I have been using mind maps for about 15 years for all sorts of things like preparing for presentations, writing technical documents, filtering information, brainstorming and more recently as a means of presenting my resume.

Last week I introduced my eldest daughter, Grace, who is 11 years old to mind maps and she used it to put together a 5 minute talk about herself. She has printed out the mind map and will present it to the teacher as part of her assignment. Grace mastered the concepts in minutes and could organize her random thoughts into a cohesive piece using something like MindMapper.

One day I will put together a technical book, which consists solely of mind maps on the subject. How do you compare the information resolution of a mind map with other visual techniques?

Posted by: Jim Alateras | Feb 27, 2005 6:00:32 PM

Just an observation: Most (all?) graphics I saw in this book have words in them. Maybe the a picture is worth more than thousand words, but what would these pictures be worth without the words?
(Kind of the music score thing for movies you wrote about.)


P.S.: A word can be worth a thousand pictures - just listen to a good storyteller!

Posted by: Jens | Jun 16, 2005 3:41:47 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.