Pictures in Your Head: When Advertising “Speaks” to You

Words are powerful. I learned that in a dungeon.

The “dungeon” was a part of what is still my all time favorite computer game: “Zork: The Great Underground Empire”. I was 14 and it was 1983—I was obsessed with this swords-and-monsters computer fantasy game, in which the player gathers treasure while travelling through a visually dazzling subterranean world. Spectacular canyons and waterfalls. Glowing, crystalline caverns. Virgin forests and frigid rivers. To this day, I remember the stunning graphics down to the finest detail. It was state of the art virtual reality.

Here’s the thing, though: VR didn’t exist in 1983, and “Zork” had no graphics at all.

Programmed by some pretty brilliant guys from MIT, the game was played entirely from a DOS prompt—a blinking text cursor. The player “travelled” the Underground Empire by typing directionals such as “west” or “north”. With each move, the game would tell you what you “saw”. For example:

“You are at the top of the Great Canyon on its south wall. From here there is a marvelous view of the Canyon and parts of the Frigid River upstream. Across the canyon, the walls of the White Cliffs still appear to loom far above. Following the Canyon upstream (north and northwest), Aragain Falls may be seen, complete with rainbow. To the west and south can be seen an immense forest, stretching for miles around. It is possible to climb down into the canyon from here.”

The next move was up to you. North? West? Down into the canyon? All I knew is that I was hooked. And almost 40 years later, I can still hear the roar of Aragain Falls, still see the rainbow.

There were no limits to the visual presentation of that fantastical world, because my imagination, prompted by the beautifully-written text, provided the graphics.

Words are powerful.

It may well be that the path I took through the Underground Empire eventually led me to my lifelong love of radio advertising. Because radio is all about using words to create pictures in the listener’s head. Well-written, story-driven advertising copy takes the listener from being a bystander to being a participant.

Stay with me, because this next part will sound a little textbook-ish: A recent study that measured participants’ physiological responses to audio versus video (as in, how sound and then video each made their bodies react) found that “stories were more cognitively and emotionally engaging when presented in an auditory format. This may be because listening to a story is a more active process of co-creation than watching a video.”

To put it another way: we passively participate in video, simply watching what is presented to us. We actively participate in audio, grabbing the words we hear and translating them into images—pictures in our heads. We retain the information better because we have mentally “handled” that data.

The right words enhanced with even minimal sound effects and music can seal the mental deal for the listener.

Imagine this: with the sound of ocean waves crashing and a stray seagull cry, the voice on the radio says,

“On a lonely, lovely beach on the coast of Maine, the waves crash… and the sun is rising out of the Atlantic Ocean’s eastern rim, dazzling and delicate in a glory of pink and gold fire.”

Did you see it?

Or at least begin to see it? With a voice, a sound, and less than 25 words, you have the ability to create a simple and powerful scene that rivals anything Hollywood could produce. In fact, how many times have you left the theater after seeing the latest hundred million dollar blockbuster and heard someone (maybe yourself) say, “It was okay… but the book was better.”

Forget the studies. Forget the science. Forget the sunrise, even. The practical takeaway is this: our brains are wired for stories, and ready to provide top shelf imagery if the story is told with the right words and sounds. Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at University of Houston, summed this up with some well-chosen words of her own: “Stories are just data with a soul.”

Make no mistake– a world class visual presentation can be very compelling. Film crews, lighting rigs, cameras, actors, and post production, however, can be very expensive. Descriptive, well-written, clearly-spoken words (sometimes coupled with sound effects, and always with a compelling offer) are within almost anyone’s production budget. To quote Charlie Chaplin, “words are cheap”.

Engage with someone’s imagination, and they will gladly do the heavy visual lifting. Whether you’re selling a product, offering a service, hiring employees… or swinging a broadsword in the Great Underground Empire, one fact is universal: words are powerful.