Creating Visual Metaphors in PowerPoint


Metaphor is a powerful tool for helping us understand the intangibles by inferring them to what we can see or already understand. Using them in your presentation in the form of visual metaphors helps to build audience engagement and helps them in their retention and recall

The metaphors of our lives

Metaphors help us describe abstract and intangible ideas by drawing connections to tangible ones that our audience can visualize or related to.

While man still does not have the answer to the ultimate question of what life is, they can still modestly compared it to a dog’s life, a long and winding road or a box of chocolate. That’s a metaphor.

I do not know how common metaphors are used in other languages. But English-speaking folks seem to be using metaphors more frequently than we are actually aware of. Think about metaphors next time when:

  • You are “feeling blue”
  • The weekend is “around the corner”
  • Someone “breaks your heat”
  • Your boss receives a “golden handshake”
  • You want to “kill two birds with one stone”
  • Your current assignment is a “walk in the park”
  • Someone says that you are “bullheaded”
  • Your colleague keeps “beating around the bush”

Visual metaphors: the picture that saves a thousand words

Besides using words, metaphors can also be expressed using imagery in the form of visual metaphors. 

You.may not have heard much about visual metaphors, but you have probably come across printed or broadcast advertisements that make use of them to help convey an intangible idea:

  • A lited light bulb popping up next to a person to suggest someone just thought of a bright idea
  • A video ad showing a traffic light turning red while the voice-over narrates a sudden disruptive halt to a person’s life because of terminal disease

You can also make use visual metaphors as a tool for professional presentation or training to help convey ideas across to your audience. Applications such as Microsoft PowerPoint or Google Slides have the toolset you need to create them.

In the work environment, agendas that need to be communicated frequently includes goals, milestones, collaboration, progress and challenges. While we may be used to just mindlessly slapping them on to PowerPoint slides, using visual metaphors is another alternative that you may consider that will add an added punch to your presentation.

Formulating visual metaphors for communicating your message

In I Is an Other, James Geary described a simple and intuitive way of formulating a metaphor with the use of simple mathematical equations. (Don’t panic and run away. It’s not that complicated):

If you want to compare life to a box of chocolate or a winding road then



Not that difficult, is it?

Let’s assume you need to make a presentation at work on the challenges that your team need to get over to complete a career-defining project. You can formulate a visual metaphor to sell this to your team, such as





Scaling Mount Impossible with your team. Using visual metaphor to create a stronger impact and impression on your audience

Visual metaphors need not be so elaborate. Metaphors like two sides of a coin or card can be built using transition effects within PowerPoint. So you need to present the pros and cons of a number of proposals or brainstormed ideas. So…

PROS AND CONS = 2 SIDES OF A CARD (emphasizing on the opposing sides) or 2 SIDES OF A COIN (emphasizing that both PROS and CONS are part of the solution)

Looking at both sides of an issue, literally and visually

If there are some bad practices that need to be stopped, then…

BAD PRACTICES / IDEAS = Pieces of paper that are crumbled up and tossed out

Tossing out the bad ideas. Nothing like seeing the slide being thrown out

Other ideas for visual metaphors that I can think of:

  • A ship in a storm to describe difficulties, challenges and courage
  • Climbers scaling a mountain to signify teamwork, working towards a common goal
  • Using an uneven balance scale to signify inequality or injustice
  • Using a timeline to represent chronological events

Considerations when choosing metaphors

Try to use metaphors that your audience is likely to be familiar with. Some metaphors are specific to a language, culture or social group and do not make much sense to folks when you use them elsewhere. So it is a good idea to do some research especially when you have a cross-cultural audience.

If you need to spend a considerable portion of time explaining what your metaphor means before you can even get started with your talking points, it is quite likely that you will confuse and lose the attention of a few by the end of your presentation.

Making it visual

Now that you have formulated your metaphor, the next step is to make it visual in PowerPoint and use it to build a narrative to support your message or lesson. There are many approaches that you can take but I am going to dwell on two for now:

  1. Using narrative transitions: This was described in the previous section. Read more about this in my post about the meaningful use of transition and the visual reference of transition effects.
  2. Using images: Finding suitable images that align with your story. This will be the focus of Part 2 of this article.


The purpose of this series of posts on meaningful transitions and visual metaphors is to encourage you to use PowerPoint (or other presentation applications) as a visual tool and asset. Many of us may be stuck with the mindset that it is just a necessary evil which carries the structure of our presentation and the bearer of bullet-points with no other merits.

Compare to merely putting down your message as bullet points, more deliberate thoughts need to be given in order to translate the crucial parts of your message into a metaphor and then creating a story out of it. But when it is done properly, they yield dividends in the form of audience engagement and lasting impressions that they will bring home with them.



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