Paint the picture you want your audience to see

By February 16, 2015 No Comments

We’ve all heard the phrase “a picture is worth 1000 words” and when you’re being interviewed by a journalist, that’s a crucial piece of advice. If you can craft and deliver an evocative word picture in answer to a journalist’s question then you’ll express your key message in a succinct and memorable way – and that’s exactly what the journo is looking for.

So what’s a word picture? It’s way of talking that uses imagery to build a picture in readers’/viewers’ minds. It’s done by using metaphors, similes, anecdotes and colourful language. Here are a couple of great examples from recent media reports:

“It was so bright. Everything was just lit up as if it was New Year’s Eve.”
– Lindt Café siege survivor Marcia Mikhael talking about the moment police stormed the café. (courtesy: Channel 7)

“Mother Nature’s the best water bomber we’ve got.”
– Country Fire Service firefighter Tavia Rankin during the Adelaide Hills bushfires (courtesy: ABC AM)


Mother Nature's the best water bomber we've got

Reading these short sentences you get an instant idea of what it was like watching heavy rain fall on an out-of-control bushfire, and the shock and awe of a police operation that used multiple stun grenades. This type of languages helps the reader/viewer imagine themselves in that situation and that creates empathy, a powerful communication tool.

Word pictures are also great for conveying a complex idea in a more easily understood way. Take these three examples, all from the one media-savvy communicator, environmental scientist Professor Richard Kingsford:

“The environment is still seen as a ‘magic pudding’.” (courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald)

“I liken it [the endangered species list] to an economic indicator, which tells you whether the economy is going well. This is a planet indicator.”

“The pressures on biodiversity can only increase. When my grandfather was born, the world population had not reached two billion. It stands at more than seven billion today. By the time I die, it will probably be about four times higher than when my grandfather was alive.” (courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald)

Professor Kingsford is the Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales. He argues there is a “yawning gap” (more excellent imagery) between scientific understanding and the making of public policy. To lessen that gap he uses powerful imagery to illustrate complex issues like over-population, regeneration and endangered species. I particularly like his reference to the famous edible Norman Lindsay character. In Lindsay’s book The Magic Pudding that marvellous dessert always reforms, no matter how many times it’s eaten, ready to be consumed again. Professor Kingsford turns the pudding into a simile for how some people view Earth – somewhere you can plant more crops, dig another mine or build another fishery with impunity because once that resource is depleted, another will magically be found.

To use word pictures well you have to jettison the jargon. Ditch those technical terms that only your colleagues would understand. Use an anecdote not a long explanation to illustrate a point. Describe something as being like something else and voila, you’ve just created your own, tailor-made simile. Here are a few more clever examples:

“Analysing the fella and his attitude I felt there was no way you could make a deal with this man. It was only a one-way ticket for him.”
– John O’Brien Lindt Café siege hostage talking about Man Haron Monis (courtesy: Channel 7)

“There is going to be some challenge ahead as the machinery of government changes in this state. And we know that with such serious machinery of government it basically freezes the wheels of administration for the best part of 12 months”.
– Laurence Springborg, leader of the LNP Opposition in Queensland, talking about the new Labour government (courtesy: ABC AM)

“Tony Abbott’s MPs went on holiday thinking ‘hurrah, no more barnacles’, not knowing that their boss had attached a stealth barnacle to the hull of the HMAS Coalition.”
– Journalist Annabel Crabb talking about the lack of consultation in knighting Prince Philip (courtesy: ABC Radio 702 Sydney)

Tony Abbott’s MPs went on holiday thinking ‘hurrah, no more barnacles’, not knowing that their boss had attached a stealth barnacle to the hull of the HMAS Coalition

Are you getting the picture? A big, heavy, cumbersome government being hindered by yet another barnacle; a brand-new government whose very newness is freezing the expertise of those around it; and the ‘no going back’ attitude of a madman.

So why do journalists love using material like this? Why is a short, colourful quote more likely to make it into a journo’s story than a long, detailed, entirely correct explanation of the issue at hand? Firstly, because imagery tells the story faster. Most TV and radio news stories are between 45 seconds and two minutes long. That’s not a lot of time so any device that conveys information quickly is a godsend for a reporter. Secondly, because long paragraphs of newspaper columns look pretty unappealing to a reader. Imagery in the text builds a picture of what’s happening in the reader’s mind, encouraging them to keep reading. And thirdly, because imagery makes a technical, complex story more interesting and accessible to lay people and that is the very essence of journalism: to inform the public.

“He might as well have been dying in a trench somewhere, it was so horrific.”
– 702 ABC Radio Sydney talkback caller talking about the poor treatment of her ex-soldier father in a war veterans’ nursing home.

“We are a wide, loving, inclusive community and all the artists and staff at Day for Night are there to resonate joy.”
– DJ Jonny Seymour, encouraging people to attend a gay and lesbian performance arts event (courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald)

“Resonate joy” – it makes me think of the Day for Night staff as an orchestra, filling my entire being with vibrating happiness as I walk through the door – just lovely. But be warned, imagery is so powerful that what you say may never been forgotten. Therefore, it’s imperative that you choose the right image. Not everybody does, as these examples demonstrate:

“I’m going to shirtfront Mr Putin.”
– Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in the lead up to G20 meeting in Brisbane (courtesy ABC Lateline) 

“If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her I don’t think it’s appropriate…for the ownership, the leadership of that company to be held responsible.”
– Catholic Cardinal George Pell at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse (courtesy: Sky News) 

“We accept that gay people can’t change who they love and who they’re sexually attracted to, so why do we think that people who are sexually attracted to children can be rehabilitated?”
– Mia Freedman on The Project (courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald )

“Several sources told Fairfax Media Mr Abbott described the result as a ‘near death experience’.” (courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald)

“You wonder why I wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe?”
– David Johnston, Defence Minister, referring to the Australian Submarine Corporation (courtesy The Australian)

You wonder why I wouldn't trust them to build a canoe?

Ouch. Tony Abbott came off looking like a shirt-fronting thug rather than a leader; George Pell was pulled up by the Royal Commission’s chairman for equating priests to truck drivers; David Johnston lost his position as Defence Minister; and Mia Freedman had to issue an apology for comparing paedophiles to gay people. Now to be fair to the Prime Minister, he didn’t say publicly that he’d had a near-death experience, it was a comment to his rank and file members after the vote on a leadership spill failed. But why say it at all? It conjures up an image of a wounded man, barely crawling away from the fight of his life. It hardly instils confidence in his future prospects as leader does it?

The lesson here is, if you’re going to use imagery when you do an interview, prepare your comment beforehand and think it through carefully. Could it be misconstrued? Are you minimising the seriousness of what you’re talking about? Are you insulting any other group by drawing them into your comparison? These are all things to be mindful of.

What I say to my media training clients is: using just words, paint the picture that you want your audience to see.

– Christine Heard