Metaphor: The Secret Weapon of Explainer Videos

Why are well produced animated videos so effective at explaining complex company offerings?

At Big Idea Video, all we do is create animated explainer videos for clients. I believe it is due to the incredible power of simple illustrations and icons to convey meaning quickly and efficiently — through use of what we call metaphor.

Huh? What’s a Meta For?

In order to understand how this works we need to first understand exactly how a metaphor works.

Here’s an example of a metaphor:

“Arguing with John is like fighting with a hungry lion.”

Most listeners would take this sentence to mean that John gets nasty and vicious when he argues.

Let’s look at that metaphor and try to understand what is happening.

The metaphor is relating two situations:

  1. the situation of arguing with John, and
  2. the situation of fighting with a hungry lion.

The purpose of using the metaphor is to get the listener to quickly understand how difficult and unpleasant it can be to argue with John, and perhaps influence the listener’s behavior towards avoiding any arguments with John.

In essence the metaphor works to transfer the concept of viciousness from something that is obviously vicious (the hungry lion; the source) to something that is not as obviously vicious (John during an argument; the target). The listener has no problems understanding that a hungry lion is vicious, so that when the speaker compares arguing with John to fighting with a hungry lion, the listener immediately comes to understand just how vicious John can be during an argument.

Metaphors are powerful tools humans use to quickly bring listeners to an understanding. They exist everywhere in language. The example I gave above with John and the lion is an obvious example of a metaphor, however if you look at most written text you can see metaphors pop up everywhere.

For instance, the words I just used in the last paragraph, “pop up”, are another example of a metaphor.

In reality, words don’t “pop up”. But comparing the existence of metaphor in everyday writing (target) to objects actually popping up out of something (source) is a powerful and quick way of telling the reader that metaphors can be found everywhere; we don’t have to look hard for them.

Metaphors in Explainer Videos

OK, so we understand what metaphors are and how powerful and common they are. What does thishave to do with animated explainer videos? Quite a bit, actually.

Let’s look at an example:

In the explainer video I produced for FanNewscast, there is a point at which the video is trying to convey the idea that a Facebook page called Celeb Bistro provides its fans with a large number of interesting celebrity news stories.

Here is the dialogue:

“To do that [attract celeb news junkies] she [the character in the video] worked with the fine people at FanNewscast to turn Celeb Bistro into a one-stop-shop for trending celebrity news.”

While the narrator is reading that line we see three icons (one for a TV blog; one for a newspaper; and one for a celebrity magazine) fall into a funnel type machine. The icons go through the funnel and out of the other end pops the Celeb Bistro icon. The images below are taken from the video.

Can you see how this is an example of a metaphor?

Two ideas are being related:

  1. The way that Celeb Bistro provides a single source for all kinds of celebrity news (target), and
  2. The idea of having a funnel type machine combine a number of items into a single item (source).

The metaphor is being used to transfer the idea of “combining items into a single item”. This idea is very evident with the funnel type machine; the video uses that understanding to transfer the idea of “combining” to a situation where it is not as evident: the way that Celeb Bistro combines news sources to provide a single, “one-stop-shop”.

Note that even the dialogue is a metaphor, “one-stop-shop”.

Here’s another example of a metaphor from Dropbox’s explainer video.


“You know how it feels to forget something, like a wallet, phone or keys. It’s like part of your life is missing.”

This is read over the following image as the puzzle pieces separate from the whole.


Here Dropbox uses a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces (source) to transfer the idea of “incomplete” to the concept of a person’s life when they have forgotten something important (target). The puzzle is a very powerful and efficient image.

And, here’s another example from the same Dropbox video.

Dialogue: “Dropbox lets you bring all your photos, docs and videos anywhere, and share them easily…”

In this part of the video, the icons for photos, docs and videos drop into the Dropbox banner and then all of them appear on the screens of the laptop, phone and desktop computer below. The idea of “collecting and distributing” is being transferred from the Dropbox banner (source) to the real Dropbox service (target).

How effective was Dropbox’s video? It was a huge factor in their success. In the beginning, they had  a great product that not enough people could understand from the information on their website.

However, after the introduction of this explainer video, they rose to a 4 billion dollar valuation.

Their video is so effective that it is the only feature of their landing page (shown below) that explains their offering.

Useful, Not Tricky

Metaphors used in explainer videos can be clever and cute, but they should never be hard to get, as that would defeat the purpose.

An example of a tricky and clever metaphor can be seen in the following ad for Clorets:

The ad makes use of a metaphor to transfer the concept of smelly from a sock (source) to a tongue (target). It’s clever and even entertaining. However, the message that “tongues can be very smelly” may not be immediately obvious and the viewer may have to think about it for a moment.

That’s perfectly fine for print ads for which the user likely has some time to think about the metaphor. In fact, the clever nature of this metaphor makes it more likely to stick.

However, with explainer videos, the only purpose of metaphors is to help prospects understand a concept, and there is no place for trickiness. As a general rule, if the image doesn’t reduce the workload for your viewer, find something else that will.

How to Use Metaphor in Your Explainer Videos

Good explainer videos use simple, visual source metaphors to help the viewer quickly digest what the narrator is saying.

Think of the visual as an understanding accelerant. If you choose appropriate visual icons for your metaphors you will have your visitors sailing through your videos as they effortlessly grasp your big idea.

When it comes to explaining quickly, the simplicity of animated images have an advantage over live action. This is not to say that one cannot use metaphors in live action video (the documentary “The Corporation” is a great example), but it is far more difficult and costly to carry out.

When we make animated videos, we always try to find the simplest and easiest metaphors that can help inject the essence of our clients’ propositions as effortlessly as possible into visitors’ minds,  and our animators draw it — it’s that simple.

(Also check out Jordan’s article on Business Storytelling: 2 Little-known Devices Behind Effective Business Storytelling.)

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