Words and Pictures

“A picture is worth a thousand words” – true or false?

The best answer is probably “sometimes.” Twice in recent months, pictures of young children suffering the ravages of war have awakened a tidal wave of emotion that no newspaper editorial or political speech could create. At other times pictures won’t do the job: It takes words – lots of them – to present a concept or support a controversial point.

Today I want to look at the pictures vs. words issue from a different angle. I just finished making an instructional video that will be part of a large writing project that’s due in October. The process was both challenging and fun.

I started with a PowerPoint (the fun part). Then I inserted the slides into video software (all the time thinking @*#$%! because the software is hard to work with), and added a narration I’d recorded.

While I was selecting pictures for my video, I started thinking about a remarkable article I’d read in the New York Times Magazine. It’s about a professional couple and Owen, their autistic son. Owen is now in his twenties, and he’s gradually learned how to talk and connect emotionally with other people – a remarkable achievement. The article chronicles years of therapy, parental love, and special education classes that eventually opened a whole new world for Owen.

And there was one more thing: A VCR and a pile of animated Disney videos, including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Jungle Book. From the time Owen was a toddler, he was fascinated by Disney’s animated films, watching them over and over in the family basement. His parents worried about Owen’s obsession with Disney – there was a whole world outside that basement, and Owen wasn’t interested.

But as the years went by, Owen used those videos to teach himself about language, emotions, and life. Animation was the key that unlocked an important door for him. In the New York Times Magazine article, Owen’s father, Ron Suskind, notes that Walt Disney used to tell his film makers that “the characters and the scenes should be so vivid and clear that they could be understood with the sound turned off.”

That principle – the pictures should do most of the work – needs to take center stage if you’re creating a PowerPoint or an instructional video. If you try it yourself, you’ll see how challenging it is: How do you depict, say, defeat, or leadership, or intelligence? The hunt is on!

I’ve sat through PowerPoint presentations that were nothing more than big blocks of text on a projection screen. Why even bother making a PowerPoint? You might as well just read your paper.

OK, I’ve given you some advice about PowerPoints and videos. But what about plain old writing, like I’m doing here? The picture of Pinocchio below really doesn’t tell you anything about what I’m trying to say. I’ve already written half-a-thousand words, and I’m not finished.

But Walt Disney has something useful to teach those of us who usually stick to words. What do you and I think about when we’re writing: topic statements? adverbial clauses? transitions? Or do we think about unlocking a door for readers who are waiting for what we have to say to them? 

Regretfully, many writing courses skip over the most important aspect of writing: having something to say to someone who needs to hear it.

Owen found a whole new life during the hours he spent with Mowgli, Ariel, and the other Disney characters. What are you creating for your readers?

Pinocchio poster



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