“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This “ancient proverb” was actually the brainchild of, not surprisingly, a print guy by the name of Fred Barnard, writing about streetcar advertising in 1927. He’s actually quoted as saying he called it a “Chinese proverb, so people would take it seriously.” So much for truth in advertising…
Ironically, the phrase is a fine example of the power of words. What Mr. Barnard probably considered a cute little turn of phrase started getting around, became “common knowledge,” and became a common argument those who sell print ads have used ever since, “EVERYONE knows that a picture is worth a thousand words!” Whether the phrase is true or not isn’t the point; what’s important is that the words fired the imagination of those who heard it, turning a few words from an article in a trade publication into a universal “truth.”
Words are magic. After writing all these years I’m convinced of that. They have the power to delight, anger, spark wars, barter peace, make us laugh, cry, convince… or simply confuse. With all of that potential power, it’s important to choose your words carefully. I say this knowing full well that I haven’t always done that myself.
When I started in radio, I was a theatre major at South Dakota State University. My intention was to become an actor. What the liberal arts major required was a variety of classes that had nothing to do with acting, or so it seemed to me at the time. Stage Design, Lighting, and Playwriting were all required classes, and while they all prepared me for the grueling schedule that awaited me in the Summer Repertory theatre program, none of them had ANYTHING to do with learning how to act! I really was a stupid kid. Every course I took taught me the language of theatre, and without that vocabulary, life as an actor would be impossible. Of course, I ended up in radio instead, but I digress…
Every time I’ve written about words over the years, one theme has remained constant… learn the language of your audience. This is more than the words they use, although that is vitally important. Equally important is what they eat for breakfast, what extra-curricular activities their children participate in (and whether they have children, for that matter), what sports they follow, where they like to spend vacations, whether they take their dog for a romp or a run in the dog park, who they thought should’ve gotten The Bachelor… on and on. Digital marketers call it “developing a persona,” and until you intimately understand the life rhythms of your audience, you won’t be able to speak their language in your scripts, commercial or promo. This is not radically new to radio… great stations have always dialed into the lives of their listeners and given them what they really wanted… someone who understands them.
I’ve often been accused of “writing like I talk,” and whether it is or not, I take that as a compliment. I have my own unique “voice” (we all do), and when I’m forced in a box and told I “must write it this way,” communication flies out the window for me and I might as well be writing washing machine repair instructions. On the surface that might sound like I’m contradicting my advice to speak in the language of your audience, however they are two different things. Think of it as a conversation with a close friend: you begin with a certain amount of shared knowledge of each other’s lives, then your friend asks your advice about a crisis in their life that you knew nothing about. Ideally, you listen to what they have to say, then, based on what you already know about them AND your own life experience, you suggest solutions. If you simply parroted back what they said, why should they even bother confiding in you? Focusing on the language of your audience isn’t a roadblock to your own voice, it’s a freeway to really communicating with them.
I started this with a faux proverb, let’s end with one, “It all starts with words.” The truth is, it all starts with understanding. There’s really no way to start hunting for the right words without it. Without knowledge behind them, words are, at the very least, empty, and at their worst, dangerous. Words ARE magic, so always choose them carefully.
Trent creates. His professional home is Heart+Hammer.