This research shows people are perceived as less powerful when they use pictures versus words. This effect was found across picture types (company logos, emojis, and photographs) and use contexts (clothing prints, written messages, and Zoom profiles). Mediation analysis and a mediation-by-moderation design show this happens because picture-use signals a greater desire for social proximity (versus distance) than word-use, and a desire for social proximity is associated with lower power. Finally, we find that people strategically use words (pictures) when aiming to signal more (less) power. We refute alternative explanations including differences in the content of pictures and words, the medium’s perceived appropriateness, the context’s formality, and the target’s age and gender. Our research shows pictures and words are not interchangeable means of representation. Rather, they signal distinct social values with reputational consequences.