The power of metaphors: how to speak so that others listen

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COVID-19 is like “a giant tube of glitter. You open a tube of glitter in your basement and then two weeks later you are in the attic and you only find glitter and you have no idea how it got there.Dr Nirav Shah, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention

How to speak for others to listen: successful communication is difficult

Source: Vitolda Klein / Unsplash

The only thing that spreads faster than COVID-19 is the information about it. If you’re like me, you probably have a hard time keeping up with the news. You might also have a hard time distinguishing between evidence-based facts, half-baked hearsay, and fake news. With the response to the crisis crucially dependent on people’s beliefs and the resulting health behaviors, effective health communication has been more important than ever. Nevertheless, many bizarre myths of COVID-19 emerged and resisted repeated attempts at debunking.

It seems that despite our best efforts, successful communication often remains a challenge. Indeed, within the discipline of psychology, an entire subdivision of risk communication is devoted to improving the way we share important information with people from diverse backgrounds.

The three-step approach for successful communication

Effective communication relies on a three-step process.

1. Know your audience

Before sharing any information, it is essential to determine your target audience and identify their knowledge base level. Psychologists can do this by assessing the “Mental models” of particular subjects. This term refers to the mental representations that people create to make sense of complex subjects. They usually consist of a mixture of beliefs and attitudes, which are assembled and integrated over time. Depending on people’s previous experiences, analytical skills, attention and interest in the subject, these mental models may be incomplete or partially inaccurate representations of real facts. Through careful interviews, researchers can identify key aspects of people’s existing models and better understand different perspectives on the subject. For example, previous research explored people’s mental models of cancer. In-depth interviews suggested that while most people seemed knowledgeable on the surface, they had serious misconceptions about what causes cancer, how it is detected, and the different treatment options.

2. Identify specific communication needs

After assessing the baseline information, it is essential to identify existing inaccuracies and knowledge gaps. This can be achieved by comparing people’s mental models to real facts. In particular, it is about identifying the specific information that people need to improve their understanding. Previous search sought to identify information needs relating to vaccinations. People’s mental models have been found to contain misconceptions about how vaccines work, leading them to question their safety and effectiveness. Therefore, researchers identified clearer information on vaccination mechanisms as a critical communication need.

3. Use information tools to engage

Finally, we must consider the most appropriate communication tools. Research shows that complex messages containing technical language or requiring basic knowledge often fail to reach audiences with diverse backgrounds. Such complex messages can be enhanced with metaphors, which compare abstract topics to familiar issues or problems. Comparisons have been shown to make difficult topics more accessible and interesting, thus improving understanding and memorization of message content. Remember the quote at the start of this article? A CDC member compared COVID-19 to a giant tube of glitter. This metaphor is likely to resonate with a large number of people, as many are familiar with the surprisingly rapid spread of glitter used for crafts or decoration. Scientific studies have provided evidence for the surprising effectiveness of metaphors, for example in the context of climate change. People’s understanding of the complicated subject has been shown to improve when provided with metaphors. A useful example compared the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a bathtub filling with water.

Are all metaphors useful?

It appears that illustrative metaphors are a promising tool for engaging people. They also help communicate facts in a simple way that is likely to resonate with various communities of different levels of education. However, not all metaphors are helpful. It is important to carefully design metaphors to consider the conclusions people might draw from them. A prominent recent example of inappropriate metaphors was Donald Trump’s comparison of COVID-19 to the seasonal flu. A survey of US citizens showed that people who associated COVID-19 with the common flu were less likely to take the disease seriously and, as a result, did not adopt the recommended protective behaviors of social distancing and increased hand hygiene. On the other hand, mental associations of COVID-19 with pneumonia, SARS / MERS or Ebola were linked to significantly higher follow-up to health recommendations. In the same way, academics have expressed concerns on the frequent use of war metaphors in the context of COVID-19. Compare the disease to a “Mortal enemy” who must be “defeated” to “win the fight”, for example, could interfere with people’s adherence to passive behavior guidelines, including staying home and engaging in social distancing.

Taken together, all of these results suggest that metaphors can be a great communication tool. if they are chosen wisely. What are your favorite metaphors and what makes them so effective?


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