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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 (as Peter Norvig has done:

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.

If you’re interested in writing a guest posts for this blog, please contact Gavin.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I used to think (when I was first writing poetry back in high school) that “I think in metaphors.” That was the source of any misunderstanding I encountered. OR so I thought as I drove the 27 miles to and fro school every day. As you say, “metaphors have consequences.” I would like to explore that topic and perhaps be a mini-microcosm of a guest blogger if I can get my mind around a topic and write perfectly about it, with limited ‘spare’ time. My script blog, if you can stomach a mess of ideas:
    My more cohesive rambling stream of consciousness Henry Miller (I wish) on a good day is:
    In a constant state of revision. RE-THINKING policy on metaphorical parameters to thought and expression. Thanks for your blog, it’s a gem.

    October 22, 2013
    • Thanks – if you want to guest post – there is an email link at the bottom of most posts. Please send me an email. Gavin

      October 22, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on We have no Secrets and commented:
    This is a great post that requires more time and thought than I have right now. File in the perennial revisit section of your ongoing get to later idea box.

    October 22, 2013

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