The Science of Using Pictures to Persuade

A picture is worth a 1000 words. Fred Barnard's quote incorrectly attributed to Confucius


Fred Barnard is convinced that advertisements are more persuasive if you use pictures in them. So while writing an article on the topic, he coins the quote “A picture is worth a 1000 words.” To make sure that people take his premise a bit more seriously, he sneakily attributes the quote to being a wise Chinese proverb. And over the years, the attribution shifts to Confucius. But is Barnard’s premise really true? Will adding pictures to your content make it more persuasive?


Will you change your candy preference based on its packaging?

Mili Milosavljevic and her team of vision scientists and neuroscientists recently conducted an experiment.

In part 1 of the experiment, hungry consumers are given a list of 15 food items (snickers, sour skittles, etc) and they have to rank them according to what they like more.

In part 2 of the experiment, the participants are shown two of the food items on a computer screen – and they are asked to choose the one they prefer more. They are asked to make this choice between different food items over and over again.

Here is the interesting part: some of the food items are made to look brighter. And when they are made to look brighter, people select them over the food items they had ranked higher up in part 1. The conclusion?

  • Brightness wins our attention.
  • Brightness makes us love something more than we usually do.

Adding pictures to your post will spruce it up. It will give your webpage a bit of color. It will make it easier for you to win attention. It will make folks like your posts a bit more.


In 1976, Nelson and his colleagues began researching what is better in memory creation: pictures? Or words? And they found that pictures win hands down.

Even when subjects were shown as many as 2,500 pictures, they remembered 90% of them a week after viewing them!

In other experiments conducted, the researchers found that people would retain only 10% of the information after 72 hours of going through it – if it was presented on paper or orally. But when pictures are added to the presentation, this rate of remembering the concepts would jump to 65%!

This effect of adding pictures to aid in memory is so strong, that they named it the picture superiority effect (PSE).

The word “cat” when spoken will trigger the image of a cat in your brains.

People can retain and recall more details about a concept when shown a picture than when explained in words because we think in pictures. Text on a page must be converted into pictures in our own minds. That is why, concrete sentences like “the red apple fell down from a tree” is easier to remember than something abstract like “the force that attracts a body to the center of the earth.”

Adding of relevant pictures to your posts will anchor your posts in people’s minds. They will remember your lessons with a lot more clarity and over longer time periods.


Derek Halpern shares some insights about what kind of pictures to use – from the user interface research done on the T-mobile website.

“One older shopper, interested in buying a phone with easy-to-press large buttons, became frustrated when she couldn’t discern the button size in any of the pictures. When she spotted Catherine Zeta Jones holding a phone she liked, she became exasperated. “She’s a very pretty woman,” the shopper told us, “I just wish I could see the buttons.”

Using pictures is important. But if you don’t use relevant pictures, you’ll just end up frustrating your readers.

Don’t send mixed signs to your readers. Make sure your pictures are relevant to the topic being discussed.

The trick to finding the perfect picture for your post is this: distill the essence of your post to just one word or phrase. And search for images using that word.

T-mobile wouldn’t have placed Catherine Zeta Jones’s picture so prominently if they would have distilled their one key word to “easy to use phone.”

Apple has always been the boss when it comes to using relevant pictures to make their point. Here are two images that were used to promote their thin Macbook Air laptops. Who couldn’t realize that the keyword was “thin laptops” after looking at these images?

Macbook Air being removed from an envelope to show how thin it is

A 10 cent coin placed next to a Macbook Air to compare its height


A word is worth a 1000 pictures - Apple Computer Human Interface Group

In 1985, after finding that pretty but unlabeled icons confused customers, the Apple Computer Human Interface Group adopted the motto, “A word is worth a thousand pictures,” and a descriptive word or phrase was added beneath all Macintosh icons.

Action Summary

  • Use pictures because pictures attract people. Pictures make your posts more like-able. Pictures anchor your posts to become more memorable.
  • Distill your post into one keyword or phrase. And find relevant pictures to use by searching for that phrase.
  • Add captions under your images to reinforce your teachings and un-confuse the folks.

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