We seem to be moving from a words-dominated world to a picture-led one. YouTube is the world’s second-largest search engine (its owners Google tell us). It’s never been easier to take and share pictures, and it’s happening a lot. See Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, et al. Marketing tech start-ups that do something with video are springing up all over the place.

That could make us think words don’t matter any more. Who reads when they can watch a Vine or YouTube it? There’s a trend both in the media and in business to be increasingly dismissive of words – and the more the statement rolls off the tongue, the more it is derided. “Soundbite” has become a derogatory term, “vacuous” the silent prefix. Joel Benenson, pollster to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and now Hillary Clinton, tells how he once pushed back at Obama’s scepticism of such tidy, pithy locutions by saying to him: “Mr. President, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ is a sound bite. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’ is a sound bite. We remember them because they reflect high principle and clarity of thought and universal truths. That’s the power of them.”

For all the popularity of video, we are still words people at heart, because we are still people who are moved by ideas. Sharing pictures is easy, but a few well-chosen words can conjure up vivid pictures, strong emotions, or a powerful shared understanding. People who can sum things up, who put their finger on something, are influential, in a way that a cute picture is not.

As Benenson shows, a good sound bite is anything but vacuous. They’re feared and derided – and also sought after – precisely because they are powerful. This is so especially in politics, where the fear is that the opposition will have a better one.

Words make names. Wasn’t it awkward when the artist formerly known as Prince became a symbol? He did it precisely because names are powerful, and limiting. Names and labels are also revealing. It has become fashionable among progressive marketing folk to refer to “dark social” – meaning social content marketers can’t see: emails, instant messages, text messages, that sort of thing. What a cheek! There’s nothing “dark” about them just because marketers can’t track them. That sort of language reinforces a business-centric view which can obscure the customer-centric view that marketers are supposed to be helping others to see.

Let’s look at the good we can do with words. A few words can create a compelling business purpose that will orient and mobilise a whole organisation. Google’s mission, to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, is one of my favourites. Twitter hashtags like #IAmCharlie or #BringBack OurGirls have flashed round the world, making issues global in minutes.

Chosen well, words have the power to make sense of the world, and to move it. Marketers are the people who must represent both the intention of the business towards its marketplace, and the needs of the market back in to the business. Even in this video age, words are our best tool, if we choose them with care.

Thought leadership | November 2015