Using Parables to Think Visually

This is part three of a three part series of articles that discusses visual thinking devices you can use to enhance your visual message.

As children we have so much to learn, so many things to experience, and a plethora of skills to master. And it is during such times when those closest to us — our parents, siblings and relatives — are there to help us better navigate the journey of life. However, oftentimes we find it difficult to understand certain concepts, ideas and lessons, because unfortunately we lack experience. Everything seems new, unique and different, and this subsequently means that we tend to make a lot of mistakes.

In order to help us avoid these mistakes, those closest to us teach us about life by sharing stories, reading stories, or reflecting on personal experiences. Some of these stories are built upon the foundations of metaphors and analogies. Other stories might use similes and allegory to get a point across, while others are built upon fantasy or personal experience.

No matter what these stories are about, and no matter what messages of wisdom they contain, one thing is crystal clear: they help us to understand the lessons we need to master to better navigate our journey through life, because they are aligned with our mental models of the world.

We understand the key messages within these stories because we relate to them, we understand them, and we are able to use and apply them immediately into our lives. As such, is it any wonder that stories continue to be of great value to us as adults? After all, we watch movies at the cinemas because we simply can’t resist a good story. In fact, oftentimes, we might not even be consciously aware of the lessons that these stories teach us, however, unconsciously we are learning all the time.

The Impact of Visual Thinking Stories

Just as stories can be told in words, they can also be represented in pictures. For instance, comics use a series of pictures to tell stories, while scriptwriters use storyboards to show how a movie or advertisement will unfold from one scene to the next. Likewise, animated visual stories are represented on television as cartoons.

Each of these methods of storytelling uses images as their main ingredient of communication. These images are powerful because they leave a lasting impression on our minds, helping us to connect with the visuals mentally and emotionally. The same is true of visual thinking.

Putting your visuals into a familiar story and context will help you to better clarify your message because stories help bring commonalities to the surface and effectively align with a person’s mental model of the world. This breeds understanding, encourages emotional connectedness, and helps structure and influence our perceptions of reality. And by far the best way to do this is through the use of parables and fables.

Transforming your visuals into a parable or fable will allow you to get across key lessons, ideas and perspectives that ordinary visual communication would not allow you to do. Moreover, you can use anecdotes to share your personal experiences.

Let’s break down each of these visual thinking devices in a little more detail.

What is a Parable?

The word “parable” comes from the Greek word “parabole” meaning, “comparison, illustration, analogy”.

A parable is a short and succinct story that illustrates a universal truth (this is important), a moral lesson, or one or more instructive principle. They provide guidance and suggestions for proper action in life using metaphorical language — allowing people to more easily discuss difficult or complex ideas.

Parables are much like similes, which are metaphorical constructs in which something is said to be like something else. However, within a parable this meaning is unspoken. Even though the meaning of parables are not often explicitly stated, their meanings are nevertheless quite straightforward and obvious.

One great advantage of incorporating parables into your visuals, is that they tend to illustrate universal truths that people openly understand and can relate to. This effectively means that the message you intend to make will be filtered through in the way you had envisioned.

What is a Fable?

A fable is very similar to a parable in that it explores a brief, succinct fictional story that illustrates a universal truth or moral lesson. However, it differs from a parable by exploring the relationships between animals, plants, inanimate objects, and the forces of nature. A parable on the other hand tends to explore the relationship between human characters.

What is an Anecdote?

An anecdote is simply an interesting and amusing biographical story you share that is based on a real life incident, involving real people in real places and settings. They can be told from personal experience or from another person’s experience.

The purpose of anecdotes is to reveal a truth, a perspective, and a way of looking at a particular situation in a unique way. In fact, many great anecdotes can bring very important elements to light, that provide unique insights and understandings, effectively shifting people’s view of the world.

How to Turn Your Visuals into Parables and Fables

When it comes to visual thinking, it’s critical to remember that your visuals are a reflection of your thoughts, words and actions. Therefore, it’s important to present these three storytelling methods verbally and visually at the same time. Both ways of communicating have a place within the visual thinking arena, and both elements will add great value to the impact of your visual message.

I will spend some time breaking down specific examples of how to incorporate all three storytelling methods into your visual thinking practices in future posts.

Creating Powerful and Unforgettable Visuals

People are constantly taking-in new information through their senses and comparing it with what they already know and are familiar with. They are essentially searching for common ground, for something that makes sense and feels comfortable with their mental model of the world. Metaphors, analogies, stories, parables, similes, anecdotes and allegory, help build this familiarity and common ground. They assist with understanding and allow us to create an emotional bond and connection with the visual information we are presenting. In this way our visuals become powerful, unforgettable and undeniably irresistible.