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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Can they visualize it?

Well, can they?

"They" in this case is your audience.  "It" is your idea or message.  In previous entries I discussed the importance of using metaphors and pre-existing ideas that your audience is familiar with.  Today, we take this a step further and add an additional layer.  We need to make sure that the metaphors and the audience-familiar concepts that we use are CONCRETE examples.

What does "concrete" mean?  Concrete examples have several important characteristics:

  • They are NOT abstract ideas.
  • They are generally interpreted and understood the same way by different people.
  • They are more likely to bring everyone to the same conclusion.
  • They can be examined with your senses and easily visualized.
  • You've most likely had previous experience with them.

Having said that, here are some examples of concreteness:

  • A juicy apple.
  • A bicycle.
  • Luscious lips.
  • A bloody knife.

As you can see, all of these concepts are easily visualized and you have no trouble interpreting what you are reading.  Now, consider abstract ideas such as these:

  • Truth.
  • Justice.
  • Efficiency Optimization. 
  • Stakeholder Strategy.
  • Resource Utilization.

The above ideas are NOT easily visualized or interpreted in the same way by different people.  Our senses can't easily guide us in these instances.  Using such abstract examples are going to muddle your message and degrade its clarity.  These abstract concepts will cause your audience to have a diverse set of interpretations on what you are trying to communicate.  As a result, they aren't going to be on the same page when it comes to understanding your ideas.

Easily understandable examples are useful because they can be used as stepping stones for understanding new concepts.  By jumping off of such stable starting points, you are much more likely to have an audience that is following you along your chain of thought because they have a strong foundation for their understanding.  The audience can relate to your examples because they are based off of existing knowledge and connect with their visceral senses.

Let's consider a hypothetical example in the context of air pollution.  An environmental justice group is trying to get attention for the awful air quality in their neighborhoods.  How can they effectively portray their struggles and communicate their community's suffering in concrete terms?  One potential way of doing this is to use the image of a person suffering or adapting to poor air quality.  A child or an elderly person would be effective.  

Here is an example of a picture that can be used:

Image source:
On the side of the image, a message could be added:  "Where we live, this is the norm."

By using such imagery, your audience isn't asked to conceptualize a term such as "air pollution."  Different people will have different interpretations of what that means.  Some people might think of the awful air conditions in Chinese cities and others might consider the stereotypical smoggy haze over LA.  By providing your audience with a clear-cut example and a simple message, they are all on the same page and the problem of air pollution is channeled through this simple and specific example.  Everyone looking at your message is much more likely to be on the same page and your message is much more likely to be easily understood and be memorable.  

If you want your audience to be on the same page and easily relate to your ideas, start from what is likely to be universally understandable and consistently interpreted. 

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