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Little Writing Trick #3 – use visual language – help your reader “see”

olivetti lettera 32

Strong writing helps readers see what’s happening –  strong writing  expresses vague ideas through concrete things (nouns)  you can see and  through actions (verbs).

Here’s an example from an Obama speech:

another family puts up a “for sale” sign in their front yard, another factory shuts its doors, another soldier waves goodbye

I am a big fan of  the writing in Obama’s speeches.

I have many friends who are Democrats and many who are Republicans.  I’m an AustraIian who admires Obama’s communication techniques from afar – with geographical and ideological detachment – studying the power of the words, not the politics.

I urge you to study the writing and see how you can learn from the use of words – not the politics expressed.

word nerd CU

As a word nerd, political speechwriter and fan of political speeches, I’ve studied Obama’s speeches since 2004.

I carefully analyse the words and writing that help his strong delivery.  I still study his speeches.

Here’s a passage from his Super Tuesday speech  back in 2008. I’ll add a link to the entire speech at the end of this post.

For now, let’s just focus on these words:

And while Washington is consumed with the same drama and divisions and distractions, another family puts up a “for sale” sign in their front yard, another factory shuts its doors, another soldier waves goodbye as he leaves on another tour of duty in a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged…

In the next few posts I’ll share about the power of:

  • parallel structure
  • the tri-colon
  • poetic devices such as alliteration

In THIS post, I’ll focus on the powerful use of  the visual language.

another family puts up a “for sale” sign in their front yard, another factory shuts its doors, another soldier waves goodbye as he leaves on another tour of duty

As you read these words or if you listened to them, the words help you see images of things happening – the “for sale” sign going up in a front yard, the doors of a factory closing and a soldier waving goodbye.

We often add extras to add to the scene the words suggest.

I see a hammer knocking the sign into a green lawn in front of a white picket fence.

I hear the scrape of the big metal doors of the factory closing .

As well as the soldier waving goodbye, I see his wife crying and a baby crying.

TB headline technique

I often help businesses improve their writing – including financial organisations. Financial writing can be dull and also hard to understand. Smart financial writers seem to fear simple, plain writing.

As a word nerd I am a big fan of a publication that revolutionised writing in the financial sector – the SEC Plain English Handbook. (The US Securities  and Exchange Commission)

A.Plain.English.Handbook SEC

One of my favourite parts of the guideline is where it discusses a study research at the Carnegie-Mellon University – by a cognitive psychologist and an English professor.

The study found that readers best understand concepts or ideas when the abstract concepts are expressed in terms of people performing actions.

So what? So how can you use this to improve your writing?

1. Check your writing for vague abstract concepts that are hard to see. The word abstraction is abstract in itself. What does abstraction look like?

2. Find something concrete (that you can see) to help explain the abstraction.

3. Add action – verbs.

Climb down the ladder of abstraction.

Climb  (Verb) down the ladder (concrete, see-able word)  of abstraction (abstract non-seeable word).

A great example I always remember about trying to explain using concrete language and verbs and language you can see was expressed as:

Climb down the ladder of abstraction.

See? – You can see a ladder. You can see someone climbing down a ladder.

On the higher rungs of the ladder are more vague, unseeable, abstract words such as abstract.

On the lower rungs are simpler words of things you can see – such as ladder.

Obama’s speeches use the power of plain concrete words and visual language of actions – doors closing, soldiers waving goodbye!

The SEC Plain English Handbook advises writers to write in terms of people performing action.

I urge you to climb down that ladder of abstraction and use the power of visual language.

writing-tools Roy Peter Clark

One of the best resources I ever found as a writer was Roy Peter Clark’s  Writing Tools.

Roy explains writing concepts in such an engaging and memorable way. I regularly “refresh” my writing skills by listening to his podcasts – especially when I travel.

podcasts on a plane

So to help you remember to use visual language – remember the images of:

1. You climbing down the ladder of abstraction

2. That soldier waving goodbye (from the Obama speech)

Here’s a link to how Roy explains the Ladder of Abstraction:

Here’s a link to the Obama speech. I’ll be referring to the power of its words in future posts.

And here are links to Little Writing Trick posts:





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I blog about fun pop culture stuff as well as more serious  business communication tips.

I’ve disciplined my self to check ALL my different communication platforms twice a day – as part of my Check-in Ritual.


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