Home » The Magic of the Metaphor


The reason I am writing this blog is because I spend my days visualizing content. Often, we use a metaphor to visualize a story or a piece of content. We know that it works, but why is that exactly? When I decided to dive into this, it evoked more questions than it provided me with answers. What is a metaphor? How is a metaphor structured in terms of textual elements? What exactly are the conceptual elements that are a part of a metaphoric comparison and how are they connected?

In this article, I would like to discuss the following:

  • What is a metaphor?
  • Why would you use a metaphor?
  • What kind of metaphors can you use?
  • How do you come up with the right metaphor?

What is a metaphor?

Metaphors are the foundation of a great part of our daily thoughts and, therefore, our use of language. By using a metaphor, we express an abstract and complex concept with something more concrete and simpler, so that the essence of the story becomes apparent. Our language is soaked with images. Think of ‘the tip of the iceberg’ and ‘building bridges’. In science, a lot is written about the definition of a metaphor, the different kinds of metaphors and, mostly, the interpretation of them. A distinction is made between visual and textual metaphors, but you can also use both of them. Also, you can decide between using a comparison or using a symbolic metaphor. In this article, we will focus mainly on the visual metaphors we can use to support our story in presentations and often even enforce them.

Using a metaphor is a useful psychological technique and can add more liveliness and playfulness to an otherwise dry or boring text. But how does a visual metaphor do this exactly? The main explanation is the cognitive effect of image on the human brain. Using images makes sure that our brains will remain triggered, which helps to engage the audience longer. After all, it is much more fun to watch photos and video’s than slides that are crammed with text. When you understand this, you can take it into account when creating different media types, such as presentations and advertisements. Take the following advertisement. This advertisement by News 11 builds on the knowledge of its consumer – namely, the way in which news is picked up and spread – but it has a surprising element in it. It shows how the news gives you the idea that you are right in the middle of the action. Would you rather read “news coverage places you right in the middle of action” or would you rather see the visualization of this concept?

Also, you can use a metaphor to help your audience understand a complex concept or show them the essence of your story. By using a metaphor, you can link a complex concept to a concept that your audience is familiar with, which will make it easier for your audience to identify with the message that is being conveyed. This will make sure that the message will come across in a better way and that your audience will understand something that they might not have understood otherwise. Stephen King addressed this in the following way: “See an old thing in a new and vivid way”. Take this example by Kodak. When Kodak invented the camera, the technology was so new and different that all that existed, that the camera had to be linked to something more familiar. Kodak, therefore, called the camera “a mirror with a memory”, where the scroll of the camera is the memory and the lens is the mirror. Two familiar concepts were linked to an unfamiliar concept, the camera, which made people help to understand the unfamiliar concept.

Another reason to use a metaphor in a presentation is because it often sticks with the audience. This is in line with the “show, don’t tell” concept. A metaphor can be visualized and the combination of image and text (or speech, in the case of a presentation) will make sure that a memory will be created. Especially when you use a somewhat unusual, unique metaphor to convey a certain message, there is a large chance that the audience will keep talking about it after the presentation.

By using a metaphor, you can reach into the subconscious. A metaphor is often presented as a story. When you tell a story, people often stop critically thinking about what is being told. You tend to question things less when you’re listening to a story, because ‘it is just a story’. Think about fairy tales: as soon as you hear “Once upon a time…”, you immediately switch to story mode. Your subconscious wants to listen to the story and absorb everything that is begin told. That is what stories do. Whether you like it or not, you go along with it. Therefore, anything can be told in the shape of a story in order to convince you.

The Magic of the Metaphor
There are different kinds of metaphors that you can effectively use to elaborate on a concept. An important metaphor is that of traveling. Striving to reach a goal, for example, is often described as going on a journey: you are headed towards the goal, you are reaching your goal, the end is in sight. A journey will also give you the opportunity to use visuals. To visualize a journey, you can use elements such as a suitcase, different obstacles on the road or direction signs to indicate where the journey will lead to. By visualizing a path or strategy that might be too abstract for the audience in such a way, the message will stick with the audience much better. They will recognize the steps that are being taken, because they understand the concept of traveling.
Other kinds of traveling metaphors are the cockpit of an airplane (with which you can indicate guidance) and a treasure map (with which you can indicate a search/quest). Both visualizations are recognizable to the audience and simultaneously linked to the concept on which it is based, which, again, will make sure that the message will stick with the audience.
The Magic of the Metaphor
Besides traveling, sports metaphors are also well-known. For example, you can compare an organization to soccer. A soccer team exists of players and their coach, a company exists of employees and their manager(s). The coach will guide on a personal and mutual level. The players each get assigned a role (midfielder, keeper, etc.) and will do their job, but, on the field, they get to decide what to do; who to pass to, who will score… They also have to play by certain rules. So, you can see there are several links that can be made between the real world and the image/metaphor.


Inspired by this blog and want to know for yourself how you can come up with good metaphors? Leave your email address and we will send you 6 tips for coming up with a suitable, effective metaphor.