Visual metaphors: a secret ingredient to impactful storytelling

As we continue exploring the theme of Storytelling in our blogs and newsletters over the coming weeks, Matt Nulty, Director in the Health team, shares how metaphors can be incredibly powerful visual tools in research.

All insights professionals should have this emotive tool tucked firmly into their belt. Below we share some of the easiest ways to use visual metaphors to bring your data to life and, most importantly, bring your stakeholders on board.

A great story is unforgettable – and can be an engrossing experience. Visualization is one avenue to make an exciting and memorable story.

But creating those visuals is no small feat.  In a typical visual artistic creation, whether it is theatre, film or TV, there are whole teams dedicated to envisioning exactly how to show a complex story to an audience in a way maximizes engagement.

As researchers we are faced with the same challenge. We collect a large amount of complex data, yet we have just a handful of people to spin an impactful, visualized story that can both embed new ideas and inspire action for our audience.

Luckily, we have a solid tool to make that job much easier: visual metaphors.

We instinctively understand visual metaphors

Visual metaphors, in the context of research, are recognizable images or concepts that can instantly surface a commonly shared or understood experience.

To illustrate this idea, think about the images come to mind when you read the following:

  • Cross-country road trip
  • Race for the Mount Everest summit
  • Making a cake
  • Quest to find buried treasure

With each of these examples, your senses are ignited – the road trip leaves you feeling adventurous, with an unclear, but inevitably exciting long road ahead; the Everest climb leaves you feeling determined, knowing that the summit can be reached through meticulous preparation and flawless execution; and so on.

Visual metaphors elevate any story

Now, take these visuals and map them onto the otherwise ‘dry’ topics we report to stakeholders on a daily basis – eg, forecasting, communication optimization, customer drivers and barriers.

By likening any of one of these topics to a visual metaphor to describe the data in front of you, you are inherently leveraging instinctive emotions behind these images1.  For example, a forecasting presentation presented as a ‘Mission to Mars’ will be far more memorable than a series of well-placed charts – simply because we, as humans, gravitate towards these visuals.

These metaphors also provide a shared language to talk about opportunity. For instance, it can be more motivating to discuss a brand’s journey for ‘hidden treasure’ (ie, their target customer) rather than talking about segment profiles more generally. Both reach a similar conclusion, but the metaphor elicits a more energetic discussion.

Visual metaphors should feel effortless, not forced

The right visual always reveals itself; it is never forced.  The first step towards finding a meaningful visual is to give yourself time to think about the ideas emerging from your data to clarify the story you are aiming to tell. For this, the Pyramid Principle provides an excellent framework to clarify your thinking in a concise, but comprehensive manner.

Then, prompt yourself to complete any of the following statements:

  • This story reminds me of…
  • The image that comes to mind is…
  • If I had to explain this story to a friend, I would ground them in the image of…

At this stage, it is key to get all ideas on the table. You will eventually pressure-test them, but your initial bravery in iterating a visual metaphor can serve dual purposes:

  1. It allows you to begin thinking of ways to visualize your data in a way that feels dynamic and meaningful
  2. It enables you to rehearse communicating the story to others, thereby beginning to clarify and elevate the way you will eventually tell the story to your stakeholders (If you believe in it, they will likely enjoy going along for the ride.)

The right visual metaphor will ‘click’.

Collect visual metaphors along the way

Finally, visual metaphor discussions do not have to be drawn only from mass media. One of the joys of working with other people is hearing about their unique life experiences and the accompanying stories.

I encourage you to have on-going conversations with friends and colleagues on the latest experiences they have had (eg, vacations, notable encounters).

Taking in all of these experiences add to the never-ending database of ideas you might want to draw from one day to communicate a future data story.

And this story might be a ‘blockbuster’!