One Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures

By John Pellegrini

Siren… picture the word. What do you think of when you see the word siren? Police car? Ambulance? Fire Truck? Rescue Squad? Civil Defense Emergency? Air Raid Warning? Or how about those mythically beautiful crea-tures that tried to lure Odysseus to his death?

Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words is a deranged lunatic. As I wrote in “Show Vs. Tell,” a picture is just about useless without words to tell you what it means. However, a single word or combination of words can offer up thousands and thousands of mental pictures. And each picture is different to each human who perceives it because each of us has a different mental image of what the word is describing. For example, when I think of police car, I automatically think of the familiar Chicago squads with the blue flashers. Living in Chicaguh will cause that. You, on the other hand, will likely first think of whatever the police car in your area looks like.

The ability of words to depict mental images is something that great authors and writers know well. The best of the best use short, active words that contain powerful images, without over-stating the obvious. Copywriters, myself included, on the other hand, tend to write boring stupid cliché driven laundry lists that turn people off completely. This is because we think we have to get everything done as quickly as possible. Deadlines are an unfortunate nightmare of our existence, but (and this is the kick in the ass) we don’t have to use deadlines as the excuse to do a poor job.

Our goal is to write advertising and promotional copy that’s compelling enough to prevent the listener from shutting out the message and turning off their radio. We often fail miserably in the attempt. What I’m going to attempt to do in this article is to give you some quick ideas that can help you stay out of the cliché rut and start writing copy that’s going to jump out of the radio and hit the listener right between the eyes. Copy that will keep your listeners glued through the commercial breaks because they can’t believe what they’re hearing. Copy that will inspire people to check out whatever it is you’re trying to sell them. Remember this one important point, though: the goal of advertising is not to so much “sell” a product as it is to inspire people to want to have the product. Yes, that’s also the goal of “selling” but the problem is a sales pitch turns off most people. So, set your sights on inspiring your audience to think that they can’t live without whatever it is you’re offering. You do that through active description.

I’m taking a sort of correspondence course in creative writing, which is where I’ve learned most of these techniques. It’s simply a matter of getting out of the mundane process of stating facts. Facts don’t persuade anyone to do anything except think that the facts are bogus. Every fact can be disputed. Every fact can be proven incorrect—especially when the fact is an unsubstantiated claim. The worst of these: “We have the best prices!” What the hell does that mean? “Best Prices” doesn’t say anything about lower prices or higher prices. It makes no claim whatsoever, and the listener doesn’t believe a word of what you’re saying. It’s a worthless statement. Another example: “The new Rice Burner X-95 is the fastest car made.” Horse Crap. The fastest car made was that rocket car that broke the sound barrier on the salt flats outside Salt Lake City. Even Incan tribes in Peru know this bit of information. Again, it’s a worthless statement that merely causes the listener to dispute your message and ignore everything else you say.

Another problem with using facts for advertising is when you don’t do enough research and your facts are completely incorrect. Let me give you an example right out of the creative writing course that I’m taking. I was supplied a bit of copy that I was supposed to critique and then re-write. Here’s the script:

“You nervously take the corner. Your car lists and rolls in firm familiarity. But somehow, today, you seem reluctant. You’re scared. Eyeing the drivers behind you, you wish they’d just pass. But as you downshift and hear the click and whine of the engine, you suddenly feel inspired. You’ve got your courage back. You drive better now, with more assurance. You know now you’re about to win the 24 hours of Le Mans.”

Sure, it’s descriptive, but it goes nowhere. Here’s the biggest problem with the copy; it’s reluctant. It doesn’t go on the journey it’s trying to describe. The verbs are passive, not active. Nobody “nervously takes a corner.” You either take a corner or you don’t. Your nerves are another problem and should be another sentence. Another line I don’t like, “Your car lists and rolls in firm familiarity.” What the hell is that? How can a car list and roll and still be firm? Finally, the writer ignored the process of research. A driver in a race as big as Le Mans isn’t going to feel nervous at the end of the race where this moment is taking place. Race drivers get nervous at the start of the race because that’s when the majority of the accidents happen. By the time the race is in its final laps, the leader (whom this copy is describing) is feeling highly confident. Cautious, yes, but very confident. They know and have known for quite a while that they’re about to win. There’s no hesitation or doubts in their minds at all about the outcome. Also, Le Mans is a team race, with 3 drivers per team. No one person drives the entire race alone. If I was in the race, and I found out that the anchor driver on my team was feeling like the person described above, I’d want that driver off my team!

Here’s how I re-wrote the copy:

 “The ball of ice in your stomach explodes. You hit Porche Bend at 205 miles per hour, death grip on the steering wheel. The G-forces flatten you into the seat. You rip your right hand off the steering wheel, slam the gearshifter down to second, then back up to fourth. Right foot crunches the accelerator to the floor. Into Ford Chicane. Down to second. Braking deep. You didn’t even think about it. You slam the gearshifter all the way back up to sixth. The engine screams at the strain. But the car acts like it wants more. The ice in your gut melts. And the other drivers that surrounded you just seconds ago, the pack of hungry cheetahs clawing at your tires, now disappear in your exhaust cloud. Only seven more hours of this before you switch drivers. You might get through this after all. Your team might even win. The 24 hours of Le Mans. Almost beyond human endurance.”

I browsed the official Le Mans Website for the three facts that I have in the copy. 1. 205 miles per hour is the common speed at that point on the course. 2. Porche Bend and Ford Chicane are curves at the halfway point on the seven and a half mile course. 3. The cars have six gears. Then I changed all the passive verbs to active, and wrote from the perspective of someone who’s fighting as hard as they can to get ahead of the pack. I’m thinking this scene takes place maybe after the fifth or tenth lap. However, and this is also an important point, I didn’t specify when the scene takes place. Exact time is unnecessary. You’re creating a mental image, not a time ledger.

Something else to consider, and something that I’m learning more about with this course, is mixing up the sentence lengths. Notice how there are some sentences with only two or three words? This is precision editing. Cutting your sentence down to its barest essentials helps keep the interest level high for your listeners. Ernest Hemmingway was a genius at this approach, especially in his short stories. Each sentence says exactly enough and no extra words are needed. In fact, extra words would dilute the description.

For those of you wondering about how much time it would take you to write like this, I can tell you truthfully it took me 3 hours to write the copy. First, I took a while to browse the Le Mans Website for descriptions by the drivers on what the race is like. Then I wrote a first draft. Went over it a few times adding and removing, carefully considering each word that ended up in the final version. I’m beginning to feel like a real writer.

What about the descriptions themselves? Where did I get them? From numerous places. One thing that I’ve learned over the years is the best source for great description is great literature. The “ball of ice in your stomach explodes” is a description that I borrowed from a book I read back in seventh grade called, “The Contender.” It’s a book about a young kid in Harlem who wants to be a boxer. Yes, it had nothing to do with auto racing but that description of nervousness was so vivid that it stuck with me in my memory all these years later. As I mentioned previously, a great writer for those of us who write copy to get into is Ernest Hemmingway. The man was a master of prose edited with a well-honed knife. Every sentence leaps out of the pages and into your mind with a vision that’s better than the actual event. And that is the goal that we should set for ourselves.

After all, what does radio do better than any other media? It allows you to project mental images as well as any book. TV and movies always fall terribly short when it comes to portraying what someone else wrote. That’s why a picture is useless without words to describe it. But radio is exactly like a book—when done well it can tap into that vast theater in your mind, and before you realize it you’re living the event portrayed in a far better and more intimate way than any movie or TV show could ever hope to reach.

Here’s an experiment that I want all of you to try. A new movie with Kevin Spacy is coming out sometime around when you read this article. It’s called, “The Shipping News.” But before you see the movie, I want you to pick up a copy of the book and read it first. It’s written by Annie Proulx (no, I don’t know how to pronounce her last name). The reason why I want you to read the book first is because Annie may just be the best contemporary writer in the world right now. She combines the razor edge writing of Hemmingway with a vivid sense of poetic description that makes for an incredible mental image. Here’s a sample paragraph for you to check out. I’ll preface this by telling you that the protagonist, his Aunt, and his two daughters are moving to Newfoundland, his ancestral home, to start a new life. They are currently on the ferry out to the island. The Aunt is reminiscing to herself.

“Later, some knew it as a place that bred malefic spirits. Spring starvation showed skully heads, knobbed joints beneath flesh. What desperate work to stay alive, to scrob and claw through hard times. The alchemist sea turned fishermen into wet bones, sent boats to drift among the cod, cast them on the landwash. She remembered the stories in old mouths: the father who shot his oldest children and himself that the rest might live on flour scrappings; sealers crouched on a floe awash from their weight until one leaped into the sea; storm journeys to fetch medicines - always the wrong thing and too late for the convulsing hangashore.”

You’ve just read a description of the history of Newfoundland. If it were just from a history book, it would be a boring read. But the aunt remembers the way a person who lived there all their lives would. “...a place that bred malefic spirits” referring to the nature of the people who lived there rather than the supernatural. A vivid description of, as Annie puts it, “desperate work to stay alive.” “Spring starvation,” the worst time of year because all the food saved up for winter was gone, and yet the weather still wasn’t good for hunting or fishing. Two words are all it takes for her to say so. Instead of rough sea, or changing sea, she chooses “alchemist sea,” instantly depicting something dangerous, mythical, and disturbing. “Stories in old mouths,” instead of the old men telling tales. “Sealers crouched... awash from their own weight.” Hunters trapped on ice floes that are sinking under them until a brave one jumps off to save the others. “Convulsing hangashore.” A sick person to be helped but not pitied as hangashore depicts one who is too sick to work at keeping each other alive; can’t work means they’re no good to anyone. You don’t just read this paragraph, you live it. The rest of the book is full to the brim with similar word magic. Of course, Annie Proulx won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, only her second novel. By the way, for those of you who wonder if your career will ever get anywhere, Annie Proulx is now 62 years old, and she didn’t start writing fiction professionally until her mid fifties.

I wonder how they plan on filming that paragraph? Or the rest of the book, for that matter. Something tells me that the film is going to be a let down no matter how good a job Kevin Spacy does at acting. A picture is worth a thousand words? Throw away your camera and never take a picture again!

Should everything you write win the Pulitzer Prize? Why not? What’s wrong with having the goal set as high as you can? If nothing else, you’re going to write one hell of a convincing commercial or promo—which is what your actual goal should be.

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