A picture is worth a thousand words!  You’ve probably heard this phrase – tellingly – more than a thousand times.  Yet despite its well-worn familiarity, it remains a valuable insight that is ignored all too often when launching successful civic campaigns.

The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” first emerged in the United States in 1921, when Frederick R. Barnard published a piece in the magazine Printer’s Ink extolling the virtues of graphics in advertising.  Bernard’s original quote was actually slightly different, reading “one look is worth a thousand words.”  Printer’s Ink later altered the quote, claiming it came from a Chinese proverb: “One picture is worth ten thousand words.”[1]

Andy Goodman of the Goodman Center is someone who knows the value of a good picture – and a good story, for that matter.  In 2007, Andy Goodman was hired by Al Gore to train 1,000 young people how to truly “tell the story” of global warming; that is, not simply how to prepare and deliver data on global warming.  In his book, Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes, Goodman points out that, yes, an initiative or cause needs good data, but even more important is the need to always, always lead with a good story.

This got me thinking about civic campaigns.  One of the steps in building a successful civic campaign is research – you must research the issue, gather the facts, and know your target audience and the relevant decision-makers.  But sometimes the data can be confusing, dry, difficult to understand, voluminous, or simply hard to collect.  When presented with an argument, those decision-makers might rightfully say, “Prove it,” or simply, “Give me the facts.”  Most really mean it, wanting hard evidence before taking action, but many also use this as an excuse to do nothing.  Giving them a story, however – one which they can relate to and which pulls at their heart – makes simply ignoring the issue very difficult.

With this in mind, I came to a conclusion: no one ever started a revolution with graphs on a PowerPoint.  Instead, revolutions start with pictures and stories.  Think of last year’s  international news arising from the Middle East and the “Arab Spring.”  It wasn’t the systematic erosion of the rights of Egyptian women that caused a worldwide uproar – it was the picture of the young girl wearing blue jeans and a bra being publicly beaten in Tahrir Square.  Or, much closer to home, you can think of the many nonprofit campaigns that encourage people to donate their time or money.  It’s not the total number of homeless children that tips the scales.  Rather, it’s the picture and story of one homeless child that spurs people to action.

It all boils down to this: when developing a civic campaign, remember that it’s not always data and facts that carry the most weight.  Instead, remember to lead with pictures and real human stories, because they truly can be worth a thousand, or even ten thousand, words.



[1] http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words.html