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Show Me What You’re Talking About: The Power of Visual Language

Posted by on December 5th, 2019
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Copywriting, Nonprofit Messaging, Nonprofit Training, Storytelling   

Recently, I attended a forum on education. I rose early, drove to the elegant downtown ballroom, poured myself a coffee with cream and two sugars, and took my seat, ready to listen. The session began, and eight superintendents representing urban, suburban, and rural districts responded to questions about the state of education in their districts, considering questions about testing, autonomy, compensation, and a range of other topics.

While many important subjects were covered, a few hours later I found that it was difficult to recall anything specific any of the speakers had said. Sitting at my desk, I couldn’t conjure up a single salient fact I had learned. Data points and statistics had drifted out of my memory.

Except for one statement that remained firmly entrenched.

Despite being out-credentialed by most of the other members on the panel, one superintendent, representing a rural district of only 254 students, found memorable language amidst dozens of responses that were laden with acronyms and jargon.

When asked about standards and assessments, she chose a plainspoken metaphor. She said:

If you are trying to fatten the cow, you have to be careful how often you take it to the scales. Because a cow that is at the weigh station isn’t out grazing.

The comment got a laugh from the crowd. They instantly understood her point that excessive testing interferes with quality teaching. But it did more than entertain the crowd, the phrase cut through the clutter and stood out. It etched its way into people’s memories—not because it was the most brilliant thing to be said that day, but because it activated a different part of our brains.

Rational arguments engage our neocortex. We think, we process, and we come to conclusions. But visual language activates our imaginations. We picture, dream, conceptualize, and understand. But most of all, we remember.

As you prepare to communicate about your cause, ask yourself: Is there a better way to bring my idea to life?

Have you found a great metaphor or image to represent your cause? Please share it below!


*Editor’s note: This post was originally published in October 2014 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.

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One response to “Show Me What You’re Talking About: The Power of Visual Language”

  1. We often here leadership teams and organizations being referred to as a “puzzle.” When it works, the pieces all fall into place and fit so well. I disagree.
    A metaphor or visual that I feel works more effectively is that of a mosaic. It implies that the pieces don’t go together just one way, but many ways. It also implies that each piece has great individuality, but also has facets that contribute to and even beautify the whole. I believe that a mosaic also has the capability of being dynamic, changing with the shift in projects, purpose and time. Using a tangible mosaic as a metaphor for a team also has symbolic capabilities when you return to it often as a team within and beyond a project.