The case of text vs graphics


Content is increasingly visual and graphical, which is becoming a dilemma for writers and lovers of the written word.

You create copy, often quite sparkling copy if you do say so yourself, with clever turns of word, elegant phrasing and judicious editing—only to be told,

“It’s too long. Nobody reads anyway.”

Sometimes it seems that reading is indeed on its way to obsolescence, at least in the business world where people want executive summaries, lists, the net-net. More online content is being viewed on small screens, and as millennials take over the business world with their digital nativism and iPhone devotion, the writing may be on the wall—or screen I should say—and it’s very succinct and accompanied by an image. But emojis and "txtese" aside, words and speaking are still the basis of most communication.

Let’s examine words and images. Words are wonderful. Graphics are great. And together, the duo is greater than the sum of their parts.

Words are wonderful

Image source: Pixabay

I will concede that unless you’re in the midst of a great novel, pages or screens full of undifferentiated text, broken up only by paragraphs, can be daunting. And graphical formats—like slideshows or graphs—are inherently better for some communication needs and situations.

Yet words offer many advantages, especially in digital content for business marketing and communication purposes:

  • Writing and speaking, reading and listening—these are universal skills possessed by most everyone, to some degree.
  • Writing and speaking skills are valued—doesn’t every job description include “good written and verbal communication skills” as a requirement?
  • Search engines breeze through words for indexing purposes.
  • Words confer other benefits to websites, like smaller files that load faster. Plus it's faster and easier to manipulate, revise and update text.
  • Words add useful meaning and context to pictures and other graphical formats.

To all the people that tell me (and my fellow writers and content marketers) that nobody reads, let’s say, “We beg to differ.”

People will read if they find something that interests them, and if the writing is skillful enough to keep their attention. And when it comes to search results, long articles—about a couple of thousand words in length—seem to perform best in Google and other search engines.

This comes from a variety of sources, like, Search Engine Land, CoSchedule and need I include more?

A survey of over 1300 global executives regarding their media habits also showed that words prevail, with 84 percent saying they share long-form articles. Charts came in a distant second with 47 percent reporting they share that content format.

Source: Quartz 2016 Global Executives Study

Are all those long articles being read word-for-word, top to bottom? In the worlds of science, law and academia—maybe; in the world of business—rarely I’m sure.

Will those metrics change as we view more on smartphones and other small screens? They seem to be shifting already.

Yet as long as Google rewards expertise and authority, and people continue to use lots of words to demonstrate their expertise and authority, the value of text and writing should be acknowledged and supported.

In the meantime, a mix of executive summaries and detailed exploration, the format of most business reports, is a good way to approach most business content and communications.

Graphics are great

I’ve already mentioned that executives surveyed on their media habits reported that long-form articles are what they share the most. However, when asked which formats and features draw them into a piece of content in the first place, it’s graphics:

  • Data visualizations (68 percent)
  • Charts (52 percent)
  • Photography (52 percent)
  • Interactive features (28 percent)
  • Videos (27 percent)
  • Audio clips (12 percent)

Blogging has become more challenging because it’s no longer enough to just write—you must include photos and other graphics. And two of the most popular social media networks today—Instagram and Pinterest—are focused on graphics.

When we compare words and graphics, it’s important to also look at graphic design and formatting, which can be used to emphasizing key concepts. Formatting may determine whether or not the text will be read, even in a cursory way.

Those design elements include:

  • Typography
  • Color
  • Layout
  • Call-out boxes
  • Headers and subheaders
  • Bulleted lists

They invite serious readers to delve in, the water’s fine. The article is on point. And they serve as guideposts to people who prefer to scan the article, looking only for salient information.

Words + graphics greater than sum of their parts

Image: Tschneidr, CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons

Think of how many times a captivating photo or chart or illustration happens to catch your eye and inspires you to read a helpful, entertaining article.

Eye tracking studies have shown that people are attracted to graphic images, but it’s the text that draws them in and captures their attention, perhaps because much of what people view on the web is the result of a search for specific information.

A picture says a thousand words, but it also can be a thousand different interpretations, depending on the person doing the viewing. As a business marketer, can you take the chance that the pictures and other graphics you present will conjure up the emotions and thoughts you intended and desire?

When it comes to content marketing and other forms of business communication, it should never be a case of words vs. images. Working together, they communicate in a cohesive, harmonious way.