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Cave Paintings, Baseball and Connecting

By Keith Thirgood
Posted Friday, January 28, 2005

There’s no such thing as a captive audience--any of us can tune out at will. It may surprise you, then, to know that keeping people’s attention in this high-tech age takes the same know-how we had in neolithic days.

The evidence of cave paintings points to our ancestors’ grasp of the power of image and symbol. Their striking use of imagery was likely matched by equally powerful storytelling.

To explain the nature of their business, many consultants create information packages. However, communicating is not simply the act of sending information to an audience.

Picture this: You’re in a park and, unexpectedly, you’re hit by a baseball. That baseball is information, but you weren’t expecting it, so you don’t know right away what to do with it. Had you seen it coming, you’ be at home plate waiting with a bat--but connecting with it also depends on how well the ball is pitched.

Most, if not all, of us are stressed out by information overload--a lot of unexpected or badly thrown baseballs hitting us all the time. And we don’t know what to make of them. That’s something we often forget when we’re at the throwing end.

To communicate effectively, we must find a way to encourage the other person to join us, to involve them in the game.

First, we must get their attention, bust through the clutter, open their eyes and engage their hearts and minds. Our chance of success is greater if we use symbols, imagery and metaphor--verbally and visually.

Humans come equipped with an amazing ability to interpret visual communication. Our brains are pre-wired for associative thinking, a ton of information is rapidly compiled from the almost overwhelming onslaught of raw data sent to our brains by our senses. By early childhood, the human brain already has already built a vast database of memories and powerful, evocative associations from which to draw. Connecting abstract concepts with concrete images (making the intangible, tangible) is the work of an instant.

Most of us are able to grasp complex concepts once we think of them in terms of images. (Do you know anyone who did not understand, in the twinkling of an eye, just what Faith Popcorn meant by cocooning?). The amazing thing is not that a picture is worth a thousand words; it’s the speed of light with which we assimilate that picture and understand those thousand words.

And it’s this speed that we want to take advantage of in our marketing communications, because our audience is only going to give us the briefest fraction of time before they mentally "channel surf" out of reach.

One word of warning about the power of metaphors--don’t explain them; let your audience make the link for themselves. The power rests in the delight of making the link; to have it explained would belabour the point. (Much like having a joke explained, if it didn’t get a response, it wasn’t well presented and no amount of explaining will help.)

If you recognize and use the power of symbol, image and metaphor to your advantage, you stand the best chance of triggering the response you want from your audience.

About the Author
Keith Thirgood, Creative Director
Capstone Communications Group
Helping businesses get more business through innovative marketing
Markham, Ontario, Canada 905-472-2330
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