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One of the biggest problems I see when I train scientists to create artistic science communication pieces (like infographics) is that we like to be literal. It makes sense. Many of us yearn for an accurate representation of the science. I sometimes run into the opposite problem with non-stop scientists. In other words, science art not created by scientists sometimes oversimplifies the science. But there is definitely a middle ground!

I think metaphors are a great tool to help people wrap their heads around an unfamiliar topic. But metaphors can only go so far.

The common problems I see with metaphors are

  • Too many metaphors
  • Inaccurate or inappropriate metaphors
  • Using a metaphor inconsistently
  • Cultural metaphors (or idioms) that lose meaning when read outside of that culture

In this post, let’s discuss using metaphors to solidify concepts, then expanding on that metaphor.


Finding a metaphor

It’s not always easy to find the right metaphor. If you’re lucky, there is a common metaphor used by your field that you can pull into your presentation.

If you aren’t in that lucky position, or if you just want to be more original, then read on for tips on finding the right metaphor for your presentation.

Be picky and intentional with your metaphors

Before you even start trying to think of a metaphor, it’s important to know what you need a metaphor for. You don’t want to throw around a bunch of metaphors that don’t serve your purpose. One great way to figure this out is to identify keywords within your presentation. Keywords should be words that are very important to the concept you’re trying to present but they don’t necessarily have to be jargon.

While teaching a workshop last year, I spoke with a student who was working on cell polarity. I had asked the students to come up with visual representations for their project or research. This student drew a circle for a cell and then drew a line at the top and bottom to represent polarity. This is a perfectly good representation of the concept, but is there something better? I challenged the student to think less literally about their visualization. I specifically asked what the keyword was that they were trying to get across, which they said was polarity. And then I raised the question, what else has polarity besides cells? Within seconds, the student thought about a compass, which can help identify the north magnetic pole. I thought this was very clever, and I encouraged the student to keep thinking along those lines.

The first thing that you come up with to represent to your topic or concept may not be the best thing available, but I find that once someone is able to go beyond the obvious, their ability to brainstorm improves dramatically.

Developing a metaphor by breaking down your topic

If you’re trying to explain a process instead of just a concept, break that process down into its individual steps. If those steps are still complex, break them down further. Then look over the steps and see if they remind you of anything outside of that process. Is there some other process in your everyday life that echoes part or most of the process? Don’t worry if it’s perfect. The point of the metaphor is to help do the heavy lifting so that your audience will understand better. Don’t expect the metaphor to do all the work. We have to take it further.

But we’ll get to that on a bit.


Visualizing the metaphor

We’ve already discussed how a metaphor can improve comprehension of complex topics. But I truly believe that metaphors, in general, are often aided by a visual.

My favorite metaphors are that I can really see in my head, and then are transformed through the power of storytelling into a new concept that may have seemed out of reach before. And I’m skeptical of metaphors that are too complex for that because….if it’s so complex, is it really going to help your audience understand another topic?

You don’t have to be the greatest artist in the world to create a visual that makes your topic shine. You just need creativity. I also believe you can create really cool things even if you don’t consider yourself an artist! I’ve taught many people how to take a concept and make it more visual, so I know you can do it, too.


Limitations of metaphors

Metaphors can only take us so far. As I’ve said before, if a metaphor is complex enough to explain your entire concept, it probably won’t be the best metaphor to help others make sense of it. You have to be very intentional about what metaphor you choose. The best metaphor will maximize the impact of foundational knowledge on your audience, allowing you to then use that foundation as a stepping stone to build up your topic.

You also want to be careful with how many metaphors you use. Metaphors are useful for simplifying a topic, but every metaphor requires two things: 1) an understanding of the metaphor and 2) the translation of how that metaphor relates to the topic. Each time you add a new metaphor (as opposed to expanding on a metaphor), you’re making it harder to keep all the pieces of your foundation organized. If you’re intentional and thoughtful about what metaphor you choose, you’ll avoid this issue entirely.


Expanding the metaphor for accuracy

Once you’ve found the perfect metaphor, thought deeply about how to apply it, and maybe even made a graphic of it, now it’s time to go further! Hopefully you’ve already identified where your metaphor is lacking when used as a tool for understanding your topic. At this point, expanding on the metaphor will clarify your concept. Fill in the details, and don’t be afraid to update (or animate) your graphic to present your extra details in a stepwise fashion.

Knowing the right metaphor means knowing where it fails. That is the point where you can talk candidly about your topic without elaborate metaphors (although similes still come in handy). While a metaphor is helpful for understanding the foundations of a topic, the extra details often hold the key to understanding why the topic is interesting and exciting. I hope you’re excited about your topic, and I hope that means you want others to love it in its natural splendor.

Go out and use amazing metaphors to discuss cool topics, but always allow your concept to bloom in its own.