Get those word pictures flowing like a rushing river

“Can you give me an example of a word picture?” The question almost always comes with that scrunched up confused look on one’s face. You know the look. The eyes squint, the mouth purses as the jaw sets. Lines appear on each side of the nose.

“Word picture? What’s that?!” A formal definition is not much help. Here it is: “A vivid description in writing.”

The back of a box for electric razor replacement heads.

The back of a box for electric razor replacement heads. Spot the word picture?

That’s not really what I’m looking for when I ask a person to use more word pictures in his/her presentation.

It’s nearly a communication art form when done well. A well-versed word picture artist can weave a tapestry of vivid descriptions that anyone within reach of the sound of his or her voice can instantly relate to, recognize and visualize.

Using word pictures is an area I struggle. So, I try to be on the lookout for great examples.

I share one of those examples in my book, Sweating Bullets:

The hurricane documentary had returned and the images on the screen were of a large, four-engine prop airplane with a large disc mounted under its belly. Mack turned up the volume out of curiosity. The narrator explained the P3 Turboprop was flown into the eye of the hurricane to record data. The pilot of the plane was being interviewed.

“It’s kinda like driving an eighteen-wheeler,” NOAA Pilot, Commander Phil Kenul said as he appeared on screen, “with a couple flat tires, bad suspension, potholed road, ninety miles an hour without any headlights at midnight. That gives you an idea. Mix that up with a really bad elevator ride, and you know what it can be like.”

Yes! That is a word picture just about anyone can relate to, visualize and recognize.

Then, last night I spotted another example. Not as great as Commander Phil Kenul, but still worth noting. I had to buy replacement heads for an electric razor. I flipped the box over to look at the back to be sure it was the right fit and here are the words that caught my eye: “Every year your blades travel the height of Mt. Everest: 49 times!”

That’s something I can visualize and recognize. Two out of three ain’t bad. I don’t relate to the word picture because I’ve never climbed Everest once, let alone 49 times. But, the vivid description is much more engaging than, “Your blades rotate 30,000 times,” or whatever number of times that blade spins under the little round disc full of holes and slits.

Here are three ways to add more word pictures to your verbal tool box.

  1. Think description. Rather than giving numbers, statistics and data, think of a way to describe that information in a way everyone in your audience can readily visualize. For example, farmers love to talk about the number of acres farmed. Most people who buy food in the grocery store can’t relate to an acre. But, when I tell you an acre is about the size of a football field, “ah!” the light goes on. You can visualize a football field much easier than an acre.
  2. Make it recognizable. Go back to the example of the pilot. Pilots know how to talk technical airplane jargon. Commander Kenul could have talked about losing control of the trim, grabbing the yoke and working the rudder (that’s about the extent of my technical aircraft vocabulary). No. Instead he used descriptive examples just about any viewer can recognize. Driving on a pot-hole-filled road is something just about everyone has experienced.
  3. Relevance is a must. The descriptive word picture must make sense to the audience. Another way to put it: Keep your word pictures simple. A complex word picture will leave the audience members scratching their heads. If you start crafting a word picture and the words, “that might be a bit of a stretch” ever come to mind, that’s your cue to simplify.

What’s your favorite word picture? Is it one you like to use or one you’ve heard? Be sure to share in the comments section.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “Get those word pictures flowing like a rushing river

  1. Dale:

    Excellent post. I think you meant to say yoke though. When you grab an airplane by the yolk, you smash it like a raw egg.

    Just for flushing our toilets every day in the U.S, we use about 9% of the water flowing over Niagara Falls. That’s what 18.5 gallons per person means.

    At the Bingham Canyon mine near Salt Lake City they dig up a half-million tons of copper ore per day. That’s enough to cover the field at Bronco Stadium to a depth of 120 feet.


  2. Thanks Richard! No smashing eggs in airplanes. The word is corrected.