Virpi OinonenDuring my career as an online producer for Greenpeace and other nonprofits I learnt a very important lesson: find the core message and visualise it.

There can be only one… (core message)


Often other people in the organisation (experts and senior managers) came to me with a request to add about 7 “equally important” points in the content item I was producing (PowerPoint presentation, slideshow, video, infographic or animation). And I would have to stand firm and say: No. Only one core message per content item. If you have to fight for your audience’s attention (and let’s face it: in most cases your message has to compete with about 10 different things that take up your audience member’s mental processing capacity), you do not want to burden them with more than one key message. But what do you do when experts or senior managers in your organisation insist on getting seven “equally important” points in the presentation or video? Try these arguments:

  • we can always offer a link to more information for those who want to know more (white paper, report, strategy document, web page etc)
  • we can always add more complexity to the core message in future messages (we can build on the foundation of the core message)
  •  if we lose the audience with our complex messaging, they are less likely to pay attention to our content in the future (burned once, twice shy, as they say)

And then find a visual metaphor that sums up the core message

Since most of the topics I had to communicate were abstract concepts (environmental and economic implications for example) I had to figure out a way to somehow distill the essence of the message into a visual. There’s nothing like a visual that makes the abstract concept more concrete – and real – in your audience’s mind. If using video or photos you are obviously constrained by real life constraints.

Even if it would be possible to explain the consequences of a new law affecting charity donations it would have required a lot of time and money to produce a video would hammer home the main point. Not so with drawn visuals like narrative infographics or cartoons! I started doodling visual concepts in a sketchbook (or whatever piece of paper I could find) to see whether I could come up with something that would capture the essence of the core message.

I later realised that what I had been doing was basically cartooning. Cartooning is all about finding the core of the issue. And it’s about using visual metaphors: explaining a concept with something that is unrelated to the concept that enables that lightbulb moment to take place in your audience’s brains. You obviously don’t have to become a visual artist to be able to use metaphors: speechwriters, advertisers and other communications professionals use them all the time. So, to recap: only one point + visual metaphor = powerful message that people will remember


– Virpi