Verbal Visuals: Language that Moves

March 14, 2017 | by Joshua P. Ferguson

Last week, I went to see George Saunders speak. A critically acclaimed author, he’s rightfully recognized as one of the best short storytellers America has to offer. So universal is this opinion, TIME magazine voted him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World adding, “George’s work is a stiff tonic for the vapid agony of contemporary living—great art from the greatest guy.” Needless to say, when as poetic and astute an observer as Saunders blows into town, I’m going to be there to hear what he has to say.

The writer covered a number of contemporary topics, and one in particular stuck with me. While speaking about his editing and rewriting process, Saunders laid out an anecdote that’s a perfect parallel to what we do as copywriters—as good ones anyway. Here’s what he had to say:

To build his stories visually, he will often take a single sentence or section from a given story and probe it for details. By doing so, he unlocks the finer points—the color—that engages the reader’s mind and draws them in. As an example, he said, “Jeff’s an asshole.” Sucks for Jeff, right? But why? That’s what he asks on second pass. “Jeff’s an asshole because he was mean to the barista preparing his coffee just now.” Now, we have a picture in our minds. Jeff’s standing at a coffee shop and he’s stereotypically not a morning person. Or is there something more going on? Enter round three. “Jeff’s an asshole who’s giving this unsuspecting barista a hard time because he’s mad at his wife for making him drop their 5-year-old off at daycare before heading to work.” In three passes, Saunders turned Jeff from a faceless jerk into someone many people can relate to (even if guiltily, which adds a whole other layer of emotional resonance).


Painting Pictures with Words

It’s easy to see how Saunders’ editing technique works for storytelling, and it’s just as easy to apply it to copywriting. I actually like to refer to copywriters as storytellers. But we pull double duty, making sure our stories don’t just engage, they sell.

In the ad world, we aren’t reliant on words alone. In fact, often it’s art that does the heavy lifting of drawing in the consumer’s eye. But visuals can’t do all the work. A good ad also has words that both inspire and motivate. To achieve this, we as savvy copywriters, have to challenge ourselves to paint mental pictures with our words—to be verbally visual.

Here are some great examples of action words in action:




Write the Way Consumers Talk

Each of the examples above leaves you with a mental picture of what’s being sold—and that’s what sticks with you as a consumer. The taxi ad could have taken the “more reliable transportation than the city bus” approach. That’s what the ad is basically saying. By using both the call to action to raise your hand and drawing attention to waiting, the ad achieves the same message more effectively. It speaks in terms the consumer does and is highly visual without heavy use of actual visuals. The same is true for the Nutella ad.

And, of course, there’s Geico. “15 minutes could save you 15% on car insurance.” Everyone knows it by heart. It’s conversational, it’s direct, it conjures images of saving time and saving money. Geico’s message is so patently clear, the brand’s ad team gets to spend the rest of its time concocting crazy campaigns involving cavemen, talking pigs and office breakrooms that feature performances from the Swedish rock band Europe.

Recently, Ad Age published a story that focused on the benefits of verbal imagery and writing the way consumers speak. The author pointed out dozens of everyday examples of objects and turns of phrase that demonstrate why this approach to writing is so effective. To borrow a few that were thrown out, politicians don’t retire, they step down. It’s not a clothes case, it’s a suitcase. That table in front of your couch holds a lot more than coffee, but it’s called a coffee table for a reason. It’s specific and visual. Beverage table, as Ad Age points out, is not.


Verbal Imagery in Action

Thinking about the editing process George Saunders described and how extremely effective visual writing is in the advertising world, I sketched out a basic thought process copywriters can use as a guideline to help inject their work with action. It’s pretty simple really:

  • First Pass: Whether you’re writing ad copy, a website or taglines, start with the point you want to get across, clean and clear. Don’t worry about being fancy or clever yet.
  • Second Pass: Now you want to start polishing. Any glaring marketing speak? Humanize it or cut it out. Ask yourself how the average Joe or Joanna might say what you’re saying and write it a bunch of different ways to see what comes out.
  • Third Pass: If you’re feeling good about how conversational your copy is, start looking for ways to give it action. Take benefits and set them in motion. Turn your words into pictures.
  • Fourth Pass: As all copywriters know, economy of words is never far from our mind. Down and dirty red-pen editing is the last step. Take all the creativity and eliminate the fluff.

To leave you with one more example that exemplifies this thought process and hits verbal imagery out of the park, look at Toyota. Its tagline is “Let’s Go Places.” In three to four words, the message ties together Toyota’s key messaging: cars, fuel economy, the open road, adventure and togetherness. And the finished product is conversational, concise and it gets the imagination going. Talk about verbal imagery in just a few choice words! With some practice, your copy will be cruising right along too, leaving a mark in consumers’ minds and having ’em line up to buy whatever it is you’re selling.

What are your favorite examples of brands or advertising that makes clever use of visual language? Drop us a note in the comments section or visit us on Facebook to let us know.

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