What is cartoon thinking?

"Great speakers and writers think like a cartoonist" – Martin Shovel, CreativityWorks

We live in a noisy world. We are constantly bombarded by messages of all kinds. According to psychologist, economist, and Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon, we live in an “attention economy”. Information isn’t scarce – we’re drowning in it – but attention is.

The challenge all communicators face is: how can we make what we say and write more interesting, surprising, persuasive and memorable? One way forward is to develop your cartoon thinking skills.

Martin Shovel drawing a cartoon in his notebook

Having made my living as both a cartoonist and a speechwriter, I’ve learned that these two professions have a lot in common. A good cartoon can sum up a situation or an idea in just a few strokes of the pen. It grabs attention, tells a story, and delivers a punchline in a way that speechwriters can only dream of. And whether you’re working with words, images, or both, being able to think like a cartoonist can help you create messages that are more engaging, persuasive and memorable.

The way I think when I'm working as a cartoonist – we call it cartoon thinking – turns out to be the key to good speechwriting and good communication in general. Good speakers and writers paint pictures with words. They choose words that conjure up images in the mind of a listener or reader.

Ah... I see what you mean!

In everyday conversation we say, “I see what you mean”, to let someone know we’ve understood what they’ve said, or written. And if someone tells you they ‘see what you mean’, chances are they’re feeling what you mean too. This is important because if they feel what you mean, they’re much more likely to pay attention to what you’re saying, to remember it, and to act on it.

For example, in his celebrated 1946 ‘Iron Curtain’ speech, Winston Churchill used a striking 'cartoon' image to sum up the complex political situation in post-World War II Europe. He said that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.” And in 1987, when US president Ronald Reagan gave his famous ‘Berlin Wall’ speech, he was thinking like a cartoonist when he called out to the President of the Soviet Union: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall!”

Images like ‘tear down that wall’ and the ‘iron curtain’ are the cognitive equivalent of earworms, those catchy songs or tunes that you only have to hear once before they’re playing inside your head on a continuous loop.

Both images – tear down the wall, and the iron curtain – are, of course, metaphorical. Churchill wasn’t saying there was an actual iron curtain sweeping across post-war Europe – he was saying it felt like there was.

Cartoon: where does Britain draw the line with Saudi Arabla and China?

This is also how my 'draw the line' cartoon works. The complex political and economic relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia is simplified into a concrete image. And this is an important characteristic of cartoon thinking: the way it can help us take an abstract idea – or a complex situation – and turn into a concrete image, making it much easier for an audience to get a handle on it.

Cartoon thinkers tend to use visual language – i.e. concrete as opposed to abstract language – which makes it much easier for them to find pictures in words. In my cartoon here, the expression ‘drawing the line’ inspires the form of the drawing.

And of course, cartoon thinking also makes use of exaggeration – or hyperbole, as the rhetoricians call it – to grab an audience’s attention. President Reagan was not seriously expecting Mr Gorbachev to get hold of a sledgehammer and demolish the wall himself.

If you'd like to learn more about cartoon thinking – and try it for yourself – come along to one of our Cartoon Thinking workshops, or commission one for your team.

The Cartoon Thinking Workshop

In our hands-on cartoon thinking workshops you won’t just learn to think and draw like a cartoonist, you’ll also get a chance to apply cartoon thinking to your own projects.

You already use writing as an indispensable everyday tool for thinking and communicating. This workshop will teach you how to use cartoon drawing in the same way.

Among other things, you’ll learn how to:

  • draw simple cartoons
  • use cartooning to clarify your thinking and improve your writing and messaging
  • simplify a message by getting to its essence
  • turn abstract ideas into clear, memorable images
  • find and use visual metaphors to make what you say and write more engaging, stickier and unforgettable.

When you commission a workshop from us, we tailor it precisely to the needs of your team and organisation. Contact us to arrange a free, no-obligation conversation to explore what we can do for you.

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