COMMENT: Platform; The word can be mightier than the image

PR risks losing an important tool as readers rely more on images and less on words to relay information, says Malcolm Galfe

PR risks losing an important tool as readers rely more on images and less on words to relay information, says Malcolm Galfe



As any computer user knows, the written word has taken a giant leap

backwards. After 50,000 years of evolving writing skills, we are

reverting to pointing at pictures. By replacing words with icons,

computers are taking us back to the era of cave painting.



A generation is growing up with much less need for words to achieve what

it wants. To paint a picture or play a game, kids can simply point to

the├┐20image of a palette or pack of cards on a computer screen.



The new hieroglyphics are a boon when learning the latest software. They

are also another stage in a drift towards image-based information that

is eroding PR’s role in the communications business.



PR can, of course, use visual methods itself, but they are not its

strongest suit. The trend away from text will inevitably drive business

into areas, such as advertising which has vastly more experience in

handling visual images.



Newspapers face a similar challenge from visual media such as TV. In a

market that is less and less willing to read, the press has responded by

adding more images. This has not, however, proved a complete answer to

falling sales.



Many now agree that good journalism is a paper’s best defence against

visual media. This back-to-basics policy capitalises on the superiority

of words in expressing abstract or complex ideas.



It is an approach that can also help PR to fend off rivals with greater

visual strengths. We need to write to suit an audience that would rather

look at pictures. Words must be made to work harder in conveying ideas.



Ironically, the same PCs that increase the public’s appetite for visual

information can improve text-based communication. Writing style analysis

programs help make the written word more effective, allowing it to

compete with visual techniques. Despite this, style analysers are

usually shunned in PR, both for training and as an everyday check on

writing clarity.



Analysers can be used with copy ranging from press releases to technical

reports. They are especially effective with PR material since elegance

and individuality, which cannot be measured, are less vital that simply

getting the message across.



Research has also revealed other key factors in the way people

assimilate ideas from text. Length and structure of sentences, and the

size, type and mix of words, are all vital in making a message easier to

absorb. These factors can all be measured to give text a ‘readability’

score.



As a bonus, this scientific approach can help resolve any debates about

an individual’s writing style. When the quality of their work can be

measured, even new executives can stand up to clients with strong views

on writing style.



Perhaps the worst threat to text-based communication is the convoluted

writing sometimes advocated by senior managers in disciplines outside

PR. The result is material with low readability that makes it hard for

readers to get the information they want.



Text remains the best way to convey complex ideas, but it cannot do this

if poor readability makes people skip to the next picture. The PR

industry excels in handling sophisticated messages and has good reason

ensure its most valuable tool is used to best effect. Perhaps it is time

every PR department used style analysis software, and every PR course

taught students how to apply it.



Malcolm Galfe is a director of Optimum Public Relations



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