Seeing Metaphors - How to use visual metaphors in your presentation

Seeing Metaphors

We usually think of metaphors as ways to use the spoken or written word. Take, for instance, clinical psychologist Susan Silk and mediator Barry Goldman’s useful guide for providing comfort in times of tragedy. They called it “the ring theory of kvetching.” That’s a linguistic metaphor.

Of course, metaphors can be visual, as well, and there’s a range of ways we use them on slide decks, websites, and publications.

Illustrating linguistic metaphors

When Silk and Goldman talk about their “ring theory” (which also boils down to a catchy aphorism, “comfort in, dump out”), they probably illustrate the linguistic metaphor with something like this very clear diagram that appeared in the newspaper:

Ring Theory

Wes Bausmith for the LA Times

At the center of the ring is the sick person, and the concentric circles represent groups of people with varying degreees of intimacy. (This particular illustration was done by Wes Bausmith for the LA Times.)

Someone may ask, Over the course of a presentation, I may use several metaphors – which ones should I illustrate? Think of it this way: when you illustrate the metaphor, you’re underlining it, which increases the likelihood that it’s going to stick in people’s minds. So illustrate the linguistic metaphors that you want to stick, and don’t distract people by underlining every metaphor.

Because you compound a linguistic metaphor’s power when you illustrate it, it’s worth doing artfully. Stay simple – choose the most simply executed version of the core of the linguistic metaphor. (In the ring theory illustration, what’s important are the circles, the arrows, and the person at the center. Identifying each concentric circle probably isn’t so necessary.)

Here’s a good rule: If you can’t draw your linguistic metaphor with your two hands, then it’s not simple enough. (The ring theory of kvetching can be illustrated through gesture.)

Spatial metaphors

 There are also pure visual metaphors, most of which are probably invisible to us because they’re so conventional, but which are worth taking care with nonetheless.

One example is the use of size and position. Putting something at the top of a slide, a webpage, or any other visual field is a visual metaphor about the importance of that thing. So is making something comparatively bigger in the visual field. Are these really visual metaphors? Certainly, because neither “topness” nor “bigness” inherently or essentially mean importance. But that’s the way, in our culture, that we’ve come to interpret this visual metaphor.

Also consider the bullet. Some call it essential; others malign it. I call it a visual metaphor for something with parts. Modularity, you might say.

When you’re communicating something with bullets, you’re implicitly saying that the thing you’re talking about can be decomposed. The thing is, not everything can be broken down. Information, yes. Ideas, no. That’s one of the reasons why the Gettysburg address looks so strange in PowerPoint.

I don’t mean to pick on the poor bullet, but metaphors have consequences.


Michael Erard is a linguist and author. For the last five years, he’s worked as a senior researcher for the FrameWorks Institute, designing and testing explanatory metaphors for science translation and social issue reframing. He is also a contributor to the New York Times, Wired, Science, Slate, The New Republic and The Atlantic. You can follow him on twitter @michaelerard.

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