How many times have you rolled out a new strategy to your organization and ran into road blocks to make it happen? How are you communicating that strategy? Through a memo that you hope will explain a new initiative clearly to your teams?

Imagine, instead of sending out a memo, that you rolled out a new strategy by holding small groupdiscussionsbuilt around an image.

Psychologist Albert Mehrabian demonstrated that 93 percent of communication is nonverbal. Studies find that the human brain deciphers image elements simultaneously, while language is decoded in a linear, sequential manner taking more time to process. Our minds just react differently to visual stimuli.

This is the power of metaphor, visualization, and discussion.

Simply sending out a memo chock full of text does not seem to work – what you need are visuals and metaphors that provide an explanation of the the “why” of the strategy, provide a clear and full understanding of what it looks like to achieve the goal and help employees see how they fit into your big picture.


Metaphors allow us to simplify new or complex information by comparing it with something we already know.  They do graphically what zip files do for data management:  they “shrink-wrap” large amounts of information into manageable, usable formats.  They create a visual, common language for people that helps them to more easily exchange data, share information and discuss the business so they can drive performance.

The true power of the metaphor is the emotional connection it creates with people about the “life-and-death” struggles playing out within an industry or organization. It becomes obvious that if we continue to do what we’ve done in the past, we do so at our own peril.  This is a powerful way to engage people to effect change.

So if metaphors help people create a common language and assist with recall and understanding, what is the power of visualization?


Saying “Our organization is like the Grand Canyon” conveys vast amounts of information in a single sentence. In your head you can see we have a large gap; people on one side of the canyon can’t see what is happening on the other side; without intervention, our canyon walls continue to erode and the gap widens.

So while conveying information through metaphor is a powerful technique, adding imagery and visualization greatly enhances learning and information retention.  Learning results from stimulating the senses.  In some people, one sense is used more than others. An article by Diane Kirrane titled “Visual Learning” presented four findings that support the use of visualization in learning:

  • People learn about 11% audibly and 83% visually.
  • Memory improves with imagery because it involves “conjoint retention”of information encoded in different parts of the brain.
  • Studies show that technicians make about three times (3x) as many errors when using narrative instructions as when using flowcharts.
  • Learners sometimes literally need to see the big picture–a holistic, contextual image–to prepare them for the details of a close-up view.

So what does all this mean for businesses? Visualization is a critical ingredient of engagement that delivers numerous benefits to organizations:

  • It forces us to “think simpler”. You can’t draw a crisp picture of something that hasn’t been thought through in great detail.
  • Captures the drama and emotions of the business by illustrating struggles, risks, threats, opportunities, and emotion in ways that data and words cannot.
  • Challenges complacency and inspires activism by conveying not only how the business looks, but also how it feels.

Visuals help us think strategically by showing us the whole picture.  This is what enables you to focus on the major forces that drive your business rather than on the everyday tactics that often occupy too much time. By using visuals to appeal to most learners, we are giving ourselves the greatest chance of success by creating an engaged and knowledgeable workforce.

So the next step is to say – how do organizations successfully leverage visualization and metaphors in the workplace for maximum results – how can it be applied in the real world? You and your training, HR and communications partners in the business need to factor in the different ways that people learn.


In 1899,William James asserted that adopting a single scientific perspective about a phenomenon only limits what can be learned about it because neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer. More than 100 years later, the work of Kaplan and Bracey emphasizes the point that learning is enhanced when the learner is engaged in discussion with others.

Socrates often engaged small groups of people so that the dialogue didn’t occur within just one person’s head (as some puzzles require).  In these groups, each member added a new perspective. When people can test their assumptions, learn from the experiences of others, and abandon the fear of needing to be exactly right, we unleash a search for ideas that changes mindsets and individual behaviors.

Socratic dialogue doesn’t mean a wide-open, free-for-all.  It means that the questions are directed and connected to the strategy. They should be the same tough questions leaders have to address.  The objective is to have everyone in the company go down the same road of critical thinking.  And, the questions must remain Socratic, which means there are no wrong or right answers.

The most effective way to change organizations and achieve better results is to change the conversations being had. Dialogue is the work unit of changing conversations, and changing discussions.  By revealing unseen barriers and bringing hidden reservations into the open, and by collaborating with others in the process, we are better able to create new solutions and set the wheels in motion for executing any new strategy.

Blend for success

Research in psychology, neuroscience, and education demonstrates these facts about learning:

  • Metaphor is essential
  • Visualization enhances comprehension and retention
  • Small group discussion facilitates the learning process and results in behavior change

Metaphor, visualization and discussion have helped leading brands the world over engage their people in creative, memorable ways to make a real impact. By combing the right ingredients, strategies can be executed with great success.