Think carefully about the job that pictures are doing

It is a truism to say that ‘a picture is worth 1000 words’ or less commonly that there is a strong ‘picture superiority effect’ which means we are hard wired to be able to more easily and frequently recall concepts learned by viewing pictures than by their written word equivalents. And I suspect that this general idea is behind the way that pictures and diagrams are used in ERC proposals.

Sometimes a very carefully crafted visual image does help the argument along or capture some of the ideas in summary. But too often it looks as if the visuals are put in there out of a sense that it is a good idea to do it or even necessary. What I have found over the years is that some visuals are actually an obstacle to reading and perhaps even a risk to clear understanding and fair and objective evaluation despite the fact that this conclusion goes against coventional wisdom.

Clearly, children can learn to follow stories in picture books before they can read and travellers can read their way to the lavatories by following the signs more or less wherever they are and pictures of things have been proven to be easier to remember (but only perhaps about 1.5 times better according to some research*), this is true, but of little relevance to proposal writing where the problems and advantages of images are slightly more complex.

I suppose we are not really speaking about the pictures of objects or machines that might be used to illustrate the text, but rather the diagrams that try to catch the different phases of the work and the flows of ideas and how these change and develop, and they can be quite complex. In fact, while pictures of things are going to be clearly and quickly remembered by the reader it is not really clear why we’d have pictures of things in these proposals as there is so little space in the B1 (we might be less strict in the B2).

Not to say, of course, that pictures of things are uncomplicated and the relation of word to images is simple in any case (we only have to think for a moment of Magritte’s La trahison des images – but it is a pathway we have no need to follow) Rather, we are interested not so much in the results of the work (which mostly things will be) but rather in the new powers that reaching the objectives will bring and it is not clear quite so simply how to capture new capacities in the form of an image.

Nor are we concerned with the flow charts or Gantts that should be used to sketch out the phases of the work and their inter-relations even in the short text of B1 and the reading of these should be simple and the reader anyway has to do it and they tend to do so.

Often the researcher will throw down an image as if it were self explanatory and self evidently helpful, but my experience tells me that often they can create problems. For example, the visual has to be very well concocted indeed for it to be faster to understand than the same thing described in a sentence when we are dealing with very compressed spaces as we are in the B1 section. In particular if the image is of the whole project (as it often is) captured in one go with all the flows of time, resources and new knowledge set out in the same small space and the reader guided only by some arrows that are often hard to see and ambiguous in direction.

A small complex picture, often quite an abstract looking thing which is intended to be read in a certain way can be, in my view, a negative for a number of reasons. The reader, for example, has to pause usually to work out how to read the thing and this pause is not what we want them to do, for in pausing for thought we don’t have them fully engaged in the presentation and have no control over what those reflections are or where they will lead. We want the reader to stay as far as possible in the fast response ‘system 1’ and not to stray too far into the slow and deliberative ‘system 2’ of thinking (if we follow Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow which I think is very useful material for thinking about writing proposals which I’ll look at in greater detail in later posts) and so we don’t really want to them to pause and think.

And then unless the image is very well crafted indeed we don’t have any real control of how and what the reader makes of the image and it is possible that they’ll construct a story that isn’t quite the one we wanted to get across, perhaps they’ll start reading in the top left corner while the story starts at the bottom right, perhaps they’ll simple not get what bit is supposed to be connected to what other bits and the flow the the project is misunderstood, or perhaps they’ll simply remain confused and pass on to the text.

Pictures are perceptually much richer than words (despite only being black and white images in printed versions of ERC proposals) which probably makes them easier to remember and recall – but, in fact, in proposals perceptual richness is not an advantage, single, simple, controlled and spare messages are the desired effects in this kind of writing act. Even though I am paid to read and look at these texts very carefully indeed and actively work out what is going on still I am baffled by the pictures sometimes and merely slightly confused quite often, at least as often as with the words.

So, the point I think is simple, don’t assume that a picture is necessary, easy to read without or by definition better than written words as even very good images are only somewhat better than words and potentially distracting and confusing and great consumers of the precious space of B1. In fact, I suspect deep down that they are often put there as a kind of ‘displacement activity’ to avoid having to write directly and convincingly about what the project is promising, and I think there are various other such behaviours spread across the different parts of the proposal structure that I will try to cover.

Make sure that visuals actually do a job that can’t easily be done in simple words that you can control and use to create the right rhetorical effects – lots of pictures are just summaries of what has already been explained quite adequately in the text i.e., they are effectively duplications and don’t cast new light on the ideas. Test out the pictures on someone who doesn’t know what the project is about in any great detail to see it if can be followed quickly and without any ambiguity.

Labels are critical and images are very hard to read and remember without lots of information in the supporting snippets of text and labels that are used – the reader really needs to be guided around the image to make sure it does the job intended. Certainly, without clear labels and guide rails reading the image requires more working memory resources than skimming through text for the same information, and it is precisely this drain on the evaluator’s memory and attention resources that we are seeking to avoid in proposals, I’d suggest. If it is not clearly named and unpacked with words it won’t be remembered and will probably be a barrier to both understanding and accurate recollection of what the project is offering.

Like everything else in the proposal the images need to be doing a very clear job very well and to be doing something that can be done better with words. Memory champions – the type of person who can remember an seemingly endless sequence of pictures – apparently don’t try to recall the images ‘cold’ as it were but create a word-based story in their heads to insert the pictures into as it is easier for them to follow a story than the sequence of images. I think in ERC proposals the image has to do more than words could and then be supported so well by the story that we don’t leave anything to chance.


* Foos, P.W., & Goolkasian, P. (2005). Presentation formats in working memory: The role of attention. Memory & Cognition, 33(3), 499-513.