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Visual allegories

Effective communication method. How can you make a good job of it?

Ogres...are...like onions.
They stink?
Yes...No!
Oh, they make you cry.
No!
Oh, you leave them out in the sun and they turn brown and start sproutin' little white hairs.
No! Layers! Onions have layers. Ogers have layers We both have layers.
Oh, you both have layers. You know, not everybody likes onions Cakes! Everybody loves cakes! Cakes have layers!

(Dialogue between Shrek and Donkey).

Visual allegories are those short "explicative thingies". Those are like visual images of abstract and intricate concepts.

Say, business with its vertical management structure and hierarchy can be portrayed through a symphony orchestra. Each musician has his own notes, and the conductor strikes whoever is out of the tune with his stick. (It's the only function of the conductor, isnt it?) "Dictatorship of talent". This structure has remained unchanged for years and years but is rather efficient for some tasks.

Creative and innovation-based business is quite another matter. It's a jazz band: a group of professionals are on the same wave, where each seems to be playing whatever he wants and improvising, but the result is just fabulous.

So, visual display makes an abstract concept illustrative, clear, appealing and memorable. Visual images prove to be perfect and catchy illustrations for reports (in contrast to text slides for reading).

The real issue here is that not all visual allegories are good.

But what makes an allegory good?

  1. First and foremost, it should deliver the essence of a report. What exactly is to be conveyed? What is to be explained? As compared to the above-stated examples, the allegory "business is like an orchestra" is simple but lame. What does "like an orchestra" mean?
  2. Consequently, it should contain details. Our previous examples specify the type of an orchestra that makes the idea about businesses clear. The more essence-related details it has, the more precise and complete is the allegory.
  3. It shouldn't give rise to irrelevant connotations. Otherwise the result will be unexpected (likely to be negative). Irrelevant connotations emerge if the allegory is forced, unclear and illogic. A better variant is needed here.
  4. It makes allowance for the cultural and intellectual background of the audience. Sure, it's good to convey details and report something new. But make sure you'll be understood.
  5. It draws attention and it shouldnt' be hackneyed. A "house" is number one hackneyed image. Any part of it is visualization: fundament, walls, roof Any of those is applicable, you know that. But actually a hackneyed allegory may perfectly explain the precise essence (which takes a lead in our list of properties of a good visual allegory). However, if we're supposed to draw attention we need something new. Fresh images are based on cross-knowledge: being good at business and knowing orchestras pretty well, you can easily make up something appealing and precise. Good knowledge of construction will help you find new and colorful comparisons in the "house" for new allegories. Apply your other areas of expertise.
  6. A good allegory should be humorous. The format of a visual allegory is by no means serious. Consequently, humor is relevant and even required. Allegory generating usually gives rise to good jokes, so please don't ignore those and dont pretend that a visual allegory is a very solemn thing. It's not solemn at all, but it's very effective.

Teachers at school are well aware that while reading "War and Peace" students skip the "reasoning" paragraphs and set their eyes on descriptive parts. Students just choose what they think is the most interesting. Don't torture your audience; minimize the reasoning part and replace it with descriptions. Decorate the abstract reflection with visual allegories. They'll make your speech appealing and vivid.

Andrey Skvortsov
CEO, Mercator group


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