Words aren’t Enough: Why and When to Incorporate Visuals


Posted October 8, 2019

Is a picture really worth a thousand words, as the expression says? Certainly, incorporating visuals and pictures to complement written content can strengthen a document’s ability to make information memorable and understandable. But why are visual elements – including tables, charts, flow charts, infographics, graphic illustrations, photographs, and more – so helpful, and when should writers turn to a visual element to bolster the written word?
One huge benefit: visuals can make material more memorable, especially over time. Short-term memory is notoriously limited. Per Miller’s Law, named after groundbreaking Harvard University psychologist George A. Miller, short term memory is limited to roughly seven bits of information (plus or minus two). Other research has shown that long-term memory, by contrast, offers much more expansive capacity – especially for visuals.
Imagery can also help authors shorten otherwise long stretches of text to explain a concept faster. An often-cited statistic is that the human brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text. While that specific number is dubious – the actual study establishing that number is unknown – the basic principle is likely sound. The brain evolved to quickly identify visual patterns in the environment; parsing text simply takes longer.
Visuals also enhance the reader’s ability to comprehend the subject matter. Researchers from Indiana University found that readers following instructions with illustrations outperform those using only text directions by 323%.
And even when visuals aren’t actively communicating information, they can still be useful. Stock photographs won’t make the work more memorable or understandable, but there’s a reason why so many textbooks, magazines, and white papers incorporate photos. Even generic images can break up large sections of text, improving the document’s overall readability.
But how can authors know when and what kinds of imagery to incorporate?
The complexity of the material plays a role. Tables and charts shine here, for example, as they can take significant amounts of data and distill them into an easy-to-grasp visual format that might otherwise require hundreds of words (or more) to explain. These visuals are also a great way to summarize data for readers who may be skimming the document, reading only headlines and looking at illustrations.
The goal of the document makes a difference too. Consider that 323% finding mentioned above: documents like manuals or instructional technical papers benefit tremendously from illustrations of action steps. The author is more likely to achieve their goal with instructive pictorials included.
The medium also matters. Visuals are necessarily going to play a much heavier role in a presentation, for example, than an email or memo.
One word of warning: Don’t throw an image into the document thoughtlessly. A poorly considered visual can confuse readers and negatively interrupt the flow of the document. Visuals should follow the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Silly), stand on their own, make sense, and – above all else – complement and align with the text of the professional document.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.  
Links: York University, Journal of Educational Technology Research & Development, National Academy of Sciences, Blogspot