Why Visuals Are the Most Powerful Way to Sell Anything

Symbols to get your message across to customers — and make it stick

Illustration: Dan Woodger

InIn my old office, I had a wall of Post-it notes with my least-favorite words. The top two offenders were moist and dangle, words that make me, and most people, cringe. When I see an ad with those words in it, I honestly question if the company wants to sell their product. When my last headshot was taken, those two Post-its ended up in the frame. Prospective clients of my research and language strategy firm, would always ask me, “Why is your head framed by the words moist and dangle?!” and I would tell them about my office wall.

As our relationship progressed, I’d meet people higher in the chain of command, and they’d invariably say, “Lee! You’re the woman with the wall of words!” It was such a memorable image they had shared it internally. It was becoming part of my master narrative. The wall was the symbol in the story of my decades-long commitment to curating language based on its visceral quality. And it told that better than my saying “I’m committed to curating language” ever could.

When our partner Keith Yazmir joined the firm, he sensed from his first day that people were trying to make sense of what this new guy was all about. Instead of sitting everyone down and saying, “Hey, guys, relax — I’m not going to step on any toes, I’m here to have fun,” which would have had the exact opposite effect, he sent out an email inviting the entire company to Thirsty Thursday in his tiny office. When we congregated in the seven-by-10 space, there was food, cocktails, and music, even decorations. It was a concrete, visual demonstration of his humor and personality. Not only did it break the tension, it shaped his entire tenure here. We all look forward to Keith’s office parties and wry sense of humor.

Almost every day, I have to impress upon a client that telling their customers that they believe in something or are committed to something is almost useless without a clear visual to back it up. Because it’s visuals that stick in our minds. We think in pictures. If you can plant a positive picture in the mind of whomever you’re trying to persuade, you are that much closer to getting what you want.

We call these pictures symbols. A symbol can be a person, an object, or an action, but it needs to be concrete and tangible. It can’t be conceptual. For example, immigration policy is conceptual, while walls are something everyone can picture. I understand that it pains many of you reading this to hear it, but can you name any visual symbols associated with Hillary’s 2016 campaign that the campaign chose? The visual symbol of the campaign was email. By not replacing that symbol in the voters’ minds, she lost a key component of her persuasion strategy. Symbols have the visceral power to disrupt the conversation in a way that a longer story can’t.

The job of visual language is to plant one of your pillars in your audience’s mind in a way that will stick. Which statement creates a clearer picture: “I’m a great editor” or “I have a rule: Write once, edit three times?” “I’m a great project manager” or “I can’t leave for the night until every box has a check mark next to it?”

Visual language that sticks is more vital than ever as some of our institutions have become meaningless.

When we were working on a beverage company’s water-conservation initiative, we told them that instead of saying that you’re saving millions of gallons, which starts to feel abstract, say that you’re saving 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of water. That gave their audience a visual symbol to go along with their claim, which made it far more memorable and allowed their consumers to repeat it, which is how the message penetrates.

Bounty has been “the quicker picker upper” for three decades. This is a master story that lasts because the corporation uses the same visual to back up the words: The wet paper towel catching the spill before it goes over the edge of the counter. The ads don’t just tell us Bounty paper towels are absorbent; they show us that wet towel.

Visual language that sticks is more vital than ever as some of our institutions have become meaningless. It used to be that a brand could get a high rating from J. D. Power and Associates or the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and it would put that information or symbol on its package and have it made. Now you need good reviews on Amazon or Yelp or TripAdvisor, and the success of your business is in the hands of all your customers, not just a panel of objective experts. Studies have shown that consumers put more weight behind crowdsourced reviews than professional reviews. That’s not logical; that’s emotional. So brands need to replace that visual endorsement with a powerful symbol that sticks in consumers’ minds and resonates emotionally.

After the financial crisis, banks were perceived as having used opaque language to trick customers into signing adjustable rate mortgages without explaining that the payments would escalate eventually. People hadn’t known that they were getting themselves in over their heads, didn’t understand the terms of these adjustable rate mortgages, and felt they had been tricked. So one of our banking clients wanted one of its new pillars to be transparency, but the challenge was that transparency is an abstract concept. It’s ambiguous, and it didn’t necessarily address the problem of eroded trust. So, we asked ourselves, what would be a symbol of a commitment to transparency?

We played around with a lot of different options. We said, “We are no longer going to have footnotes. Footnotes are going to be in the same size font as everything else in our documents.” Eventually we landed on the idea of a one-page summary document that would accompany every mortgage package moving forward, because we all know that when you buy a house, you have no idea what you’re signing. “Here’s one page that says in plain English at a fourth-grade level exactly what you’re agreeing to.”

Then we named it the Clarity Commitment. The Clarity Commitment stated that no matter what product or service you got from that bank, and no matter how complicated it was, whether it was a financial services instrument or a mortgage, you were going to get one page in plain English that summarized everything you were agreeing to.

Once that symbol was added, the initiative had a much bigger impact, substantially increasing customer satisfaction. In other words, their customers now trusted them more to do the right thing, which was a big shift after the financial crisis.

When Starbucks brought CEO Howard Schultz back after years of declining market share, the company didn’t just say, “We’re getting back to our roots” or “We’re recommitting to quality.” It closed all the stores nationwide for three hours to retrain every barista on making the perfect cup of coffee. It was a national news story, and those closed stores stuck in people’s minds as a visual reminder of how much Starbucks cared. The results were worth waiting for.

When you’re next making a claim, any claim, think about the most vivid image that conveys what you’re trying to get across. Comb your mission and objective statements for theoreticals and transform them into tangibles.

From Persuasion by Lee Hartley Carter, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Lee Hartley Carter.

Word geek, messaging guru, public opinion expert and author of Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter.

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