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Words and Pictures

by Hank Barnes  |  January 24, 2017  |  2 Comments

This week, during some internal meetings at Gartner, there was some strong debate about some graphics.   Now, lets be honest, we are analysts and critiquing is a big part of what we do.   But the discussion brought back an old memory.

Most of us know the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words”, but this memory (and I could not find it to get the exact citation) offered a different position saying “No, words are worth a thousand words.”   Searching on google brings up tons of posts and opinions on both perspectives.

From Dariusz Sankowski via unsplash.com

From Dariusz Sankowski via unsplash.com

I think I fall into the camp that is not a big believer in pictures–in and of themselves.     A picture by itself is open to a wide range of opinions and interpretations.  It will mean different things to different people, evoking different emotions and opinions.   Relying on a picture alone to tell a story is pretty risky.  Its a problem of context.

The picture with this post is beautiful and compelling, but I find myself creating many different stories that it could be telling.  When that is the intent, awesome.  But when using graphics for technology marketing and sales purposes, that could create problems.  And some folks rely on pictures too much.

Take Magic Quadrants.  We regularly hear from providers that they are losing deals because of the graphic–not the report–the graphic.   Despite every report saying that this is really a depiction of a collection of worthy products, these vendors imply that some people ignore the analysis and make decisions based on the graphic alone.   I hope that does not happen.   It is a disservice to the customer, the vendors, and the market.  Sure, you could use the graphic to create a short list, but then use the written portion to refine your  analysis as part of the overall buying process.   You might even find some other vendors to consider in the document that don’t meet all the quadrant criteria.

That is the thing.  Without words–most images and graphics tell an incomplete story.  Or present a significant risk of being interpreted differently than you intended.

So, do I hate images?  Not really (although I am more of a words guy (Most of the books I read, like most that you read I imagine, don’t have a lot of images).    I use images in almost every one of my blogs.  But the role of graphics and images needs to be thought of properly.  In my humble opinion, images should serve one of three purposes:

  • Reinforce a written story –the image if effectively a summary of the story that was told.  (or summary of parts of the story)
  • Draw people into a story –the image is designed to spur people to want to learn more–and guide them to words that tell the rest of the story.
  • Provide a metaphor–the image illustrates a metaphor that supports the written story (most of the images I use in blogs are my attempts at a metaphor).

With that in mind, I laugh at some of the discussions about images.   Most of the arguments are people that feel the image is not telling the whole story—but it never will.   And, if you try to to tell the whole story in an image, by itself, you usually end up with a complicated mess that no one can figure out.

As you look at and discuss and debate content and images, think about the role of purpose of the image.  If its not reinforcing the story, if it is not drawing people into the story, or providing a metaphor–then it still needs work.

Otherwise, make sure you use words (spoken or written) with the image to tell the whole story.

Category: go-to-market  

Tags: analysis  decision-making  graphics  images  storytelling  

Hank Barnes
Research Vice President
4+ years at Gartner
29 years IT Industry

Hank Barnes provides research and advisory services on go-to-market strategies for technology providers. He focuses on issues related to positioning, storytelling, the technology customer life cycle, and customer experience. Read Full Bio


Thoughts on Words and Pictures


  1. ken rutsky says:

    Hank, one special type of image is near and dear to my heart, models. Quadrants, Architectures, timelines, Venns diagrams, Icebergs,ladders,etc. The reason is they depict relationships in ways that words alone can’t. Image a Magic Quadrant that was a magic list instead, how less powerful that would be. Model representations work hand and hand with words and metaphors (images or words) to give ideas depth and breadth… then again, when my book was in review, one publisher called it an embarrassment of riches, and wanted less models and less ideas. I respectfully declined their advice… :) Cheers
    Ken

    • Hank Barnes says:

      I love models too–but often they to require some words to make them even more powerful and clear. The combination is a beautiful thing.



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