Words that Catch the Crook … or the Sale

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You ever wonder whether old sayings are really true?

Like this chestnut:

“A picture’s worth a thousand words.”

Recently I put on my “myth buster” goggles and put the old adage to the test.

I contacted an expert at converting words to pictures: a police sketch artist.

A sketch artist turns the words of a witness into an image that can be the difference in nabbing the bad guy.

I reached out to Michael W. Streed, a retired police sergeant who has 30 years of police sketching experience under his belt. (Michael now runs a site called SketchCop.)

And so I asked him – just how many words does it take to equal a picture?

Turns out … about 3,000 words.

(I reasoned thusly: a typical sketch interview takes Michael about an hour. If the witness speaks for only half that time, then that’s 30 minutes multiplied by 100 words per minute, the low ball estimate for the average words we speak in a minute.)

Myth busted!

But of course that makes pictures even more valuable – not less. Which makes sense.

Words get filtered through complicated thought processes, but images hit your gut directly.

‘Cause I could try to describe a fellow by saying he’s got blond hair, greenish eyes, in his late teens, looks a little too cheerful …
… or I could just show you this:

Photo of Justin Bieber mugshot

I hope I look this chipper in my first mug shot

Whole different experience, right?

And that’s because an image triggers your EMOTIONS directly.

But a description or explanation talks to the ANALYTICAL part of your mind.

Our analytical side reasons, critiques, and processes things.

(It can make a mean pro-con list.)

But it can easily get stuck in “analysis paralysis.”

(In fact, patients who have brain damage to their limbic (emotional) system spend hours going back and forth over a decision, unable to commit to a course of action.)

Our emotional side, however, is built for action.

Emotions make decisions.

So as much as possible, we want to speak directly to the emotions of a prospect.

A story is a “word picture” that can jolt a reader from his analytical stance into his emotional frame of mind.

When a story is well told, it puts the reader in the thick of the action, as though he experienced it himself.


Like in this classic 1926 ad by the great John Caples:

Reprint of classic "They Laughed When I Sat Down to the Piano" ad from legendary copywriter John Caples

Just John Caples making some history

This is one of the most famous direct response ads of all time — and its phenomenal success was powered by a story.
It opens like this:

“Arthur had just played “The Rosary.” The room rang with applause. I decided that this would be a dramatic moment for me to make my debut. To the amazement of all my friends, I strode confidently over to the piano and sat down.

“Jack is up to his old tricks,” somebody chuckled. The crowd laughed. They were all certain that I couldn’t play a single note.

“Can he really play?” I heard a girl whisper to Arthur.

“Heavens, no!” Arthur exclaimed “He never played a note in all his life… But just you watch him. This is going to be good.”

Instead of giving you a drawn out explanation of the U.S. School of Music …

… Caples plucks you from your chair and drops you right in the room with Jack.

You can see a smirk or two on the faces staring at you.

Hear the nervous throat clearing in the room as you sit down at the piano.

But then – astonished silence as you capture every perfect note.

It’s too bad the story is almost certainly a fabrication – as far as I know, there is no record of a smug know-it-all named Arthur and a plucky autodidact named Jack.

But the ad demonstrates the power of story to switch your brain from the analytical to the emotional.

The zone where “Action!” happens.

Exactly where we want to be.


The quickest route to the “lizard brain” (ie the emotions) is to recreate a lizard-like experience … and we simulate that best with stories.

Stay Tuned For Next Week …

In which I visit the zoo and have the fear of claw put in me

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Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry is a direct response copywriter who specializes in telling stories. You can contact Scott and learn more about using the power of stories in marketing at marketingwithstory.com.
Showing 9 comments
  • Ross O'Lochlainn

    Another great entry.

    What’s interesting is a thought that just popped into my head as I was reading Caples’ lead…

    When you’re telling someone a story, and you focus on presenting the imagery of the events, it’s almost as if the other person can’t argue with those thoughts.

    You can argue against logic and an argument that a copywriter puts before you. But you can’t really argue against a story (unless you were there) — you can only draw conclusions.

    • Scott McKinstry

      Thanks, Ross, and great point.

      One explanation of why we can’t argue is that we get “transported”, and our judgment faculty gets bypassed.

      Funny, I was writing out this exact quote the moment before I read your post:

      “And in this there is an important lesson about the molding power of story. When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.” (emphasis added, p. 152)

      This is from the book The Storytelling Animal, by Jonathan Gottschall. Published in 2012, It’s an excellent read for anyone who loves and uses stories, which means advertisers or also any human being.

      • Ross O'Lochlainn

        Yes, “transported” is the precise word. It’s interesting how your seems to operate on a different frequency, above the band where that skeptical shield operates.

        I’ll have to check out that book. Seems like a dinger!

    • David Allan

      It’s like the example I heard Jon Benson give once where he said (paraphrasing)” someone runs into a room and yells FIRE!, you don’t question his authority” 🙂

      • Ross O'Lochlainn

        You’d be wise not to!

  • David Allan

    Good post. It demonstrates well what we “feel” to be true. Ah, that John Caples ad. Did anyone ever ask him why he fabricated it?

    • Scott McKinstry

      Thanks, David. And not that I know of. I think that those kinds of storytelling ads were more common in Caple’s day, so the practice was more accepted. Another famous one is Listerine’s “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” that tells the story of Edna, the unfortunate girl whose breath doesn’t exactly smell like roses.

      • David Allan

        You think they’re more common than today? I’m not sure I agree with that given the prevalence of VSL’s and of course some excellent storytelling in 30 second TV commercials. I think its probably more prevalent than ever.

        • Scott McKinstry

          Good point. You’re right that a lot of VSL’s feature a story that can leave you wondering just how true they were.

          (It’s an issue that was recently tackled inside Copy Chief, when John Carlton gave us a behind-the-scenes look at one of his famous letters.)

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