Martin ShovelMartin Shovel is a writer, speechwriter, cartoonist and communications expert. He is an occasional contributor to the
 Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog and the Macmillan Dictionary 
blog, and has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth. He runs a
communications consultancy CreativityWorks together with Martha 
Leyton. You can follow Martin on Twitter @MartinShovel

Alongside your work as a speech writing and presentation consultant you run a workshop titled “cartooning for communicators”. Why do you think communicators benefit from “thinking like a cartoonist”?

That’s a good question! I’m currently writing a book on this – so I’ll try and pick out a few good examples – but there are many more… When I’m working on a cartoon I want to grab the viewer’s attention, to surprise them and make them think. And all this usually needs to be done in a single image. It’s very similar to the way I work on a speech in fact. The best speeches and presentations are engaging and propositional – they make the audience sit up and take notice, the way a good cartoon does.

When people flick through a magazine, or a newspaper, they are drawn first to the cartoons, not the words. Cartoons command our attention because they are islands of calm in an ocean of text. Our eyes dart towards them like moths to a lamp. So thinking like a cartoonist helps us to craft messages that attract people – and ‘draw them in’.

One of the ways cartoonists achieve this is through the use of metaphors that get to the heart of the matter. A metaphor helps us gain insight into one situation by showing us how it resembles an entirely different one.  Here, for example, of is one of my cartoons on the recent changes to the National Health Service, which, in the view of many health professionals, have paved the way to its break-up and privatisation. The metaphor is simple and shocking, and the fact that it has been shared many times on Twitter suggests that it has touched a nerve.

NHS cartoon by Martin Shovel

And cartoon thinking teaches us that simplifying messages gives them greater impact – less is more. The NHS cartoon’s simplicity increases its impact – too much fat on a message slows it down and drains the life from it. As both a speechwriter and cartoonist, what fascinates me is the intimate relationship between words and images. Good writers and speakers use visual language – they paint pictures with words. My hope is that we’re on the brink of a new understanding of the relationship between thinking in words and thinking in images.

What kind of people come to your cartooning workshop?

All kinds of people from every sector – what they all have in common is a wish to improve the way they communicate – especially to make it more engaging, persuasive and memorable.  Some are involved in training and teaching, others run organisations and need to engage their staff, or reach out to the public. Most have to stand up in front of people and make presentations of one kind or another – and they’re fed up with PowerPoint!

What are your top tips on how  communications professionals can use cartoons/drawings in their work?

Apart from the obvious – using cartoons to illustrate presentations and so on – cartooning has many other uses for communicators. Here are just three to get you started…

  1. you can try drawing your message, and you’ll discover metaphors and words that will enable you to write – or say – things better.
  2. drawing your message is also a good way of helping you simplify it. As you draw you’ll discover what elements of your message can be easily discarded.
  3. drawing your message is a good way of helping you to avoid being too abstract – a picture is usually a representation of something concrete.

You mentioned that you think time is now ripe for cartoons and comics to become a more mainstream communication tool. Why do you think this is happening now?

There are many reasons, but one of the most important is that audiences are more discriminating and demanding. Whatever the context – whether it be academia, business, marketing, or some form of leisure activity – people expect communication to be an entertaining, as well as an informative and enlightening, experience.

I don’t see many people doing visual explanations. I’ve been blaming the education system that treats drawing, illustration and visual expression in general as something that can never be combined with science or writing or critical thinking, but I might be wrong. Any thoughts on this?

I think the tide is turning. Many years ago there was a wonderful series of ‘…for beginners’ books that used cartoons to explain academic subjects like Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis. The series is out of print now, but I think it succeeded in demonstrating that an apparently ‘frivolous’ medium, like cartoons, could be a great way of explaining complex and challenging ideas. The rise of the graphic novel genre has also played an important part in showing that cartoonists are capable of tackling serious subjects.

Can you give us an example of a good piece of drawn visual communication you’ve come across recently? (or not so recently)

Here’s an old favourite by New Yorker cartoonist, Saul Steinberg. He brilliantly illustrates the multisensory nature of images by showing how it’s possible to represent the sound of different instruments visually.

Visualising music - cartoon by New Yorker cartoonist, Saul Steinberg

– Virpi Oinonen