Chapter 2: Use Visual Language

UNHCR Innovation Service
Mar 27 · 7 min read
Photo from NASA.

By Annie Neimand, Ph.D., Ann Christiano, and Lauren Parater

Language the international community uses to describe forced displacement and migration can be muddled in technical terms. Yet, this jargon is critically important to determine how distinct groups of people are protected under international law and legal frameworks.

As a result, legal jargon drives much of the communication in this space for international institutions, governments and the public. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have set out clear visions of cooperation and engagement for the benefit of refugees and migrants. A recent joint letter published in January 2019 outlines the scope of the complexity of the situations and the distinct rhetoric and categorization of people on the move.

The two organizations note the importance that, “UNHCR’s mandated responsibilities, particularly its international protection function [for persons displaced across borders], are not jeopardized with alternative terminologies and definitions being pursued…” In this sense, the language used by the international community can be misinterpreted to mean that UNHCR is responsible and accountable for the provision of international protection.

Recognizing the complexities of climate change displacement while still navigating the crucial need for accurate terminology related to international protection is a huge communication challenge.

Legal experts are critical of terms like “environmental refugees” or “climate change refugees” for explaining particular challenges for these communities. While these terms can help non-expert audiences understand that climate change plays a role in the displacement of communities, they also feed into alarmist narratives and ignore the intersections between environmental, political, economic, social and personal factors that either force or lead people to choose to leave their homes.

This poses a communication challenge because we cannot simply refer to these communities as refugees. Instead, we must be specific–regionally, situationally and legally–when working to change institutional thinking and practices in the protection of displaced people, and in building support for these communities.

To build understanding of the unique experiences and needs of these communities, it is important to use visual or figurative language.

Neuroscience research has shown that people make decisions in the visual part of the brain (Brascamp et al., 2015). People are much more likely to remember a message if we use concrete visual language, known in research as the concreteness effect (Bauer, 2009). Research shows that people recalled concrete language two to three times more than abstract language and remember it for a longer time.

Leading with abstract concepts leaves space for audiences to make assumptions about what those terms mean. Using abstract terms and jargon can be potentially harmful if audiences have inaccurate information or biases (Graham, Nosek and Hadit, 2012).

You may be thinking you need to use abstract terms to capture the range of experiences and situations in this context. But research suggests you will be much more effective if you use visual language and stories to illustrate what displacement and migration in this context looks like. Instead of saying “displacement in the context of climate change,” you might say people who were forced to leave their communities because of drought, fire or flooding, and include a specific event by name.

Include situational details (like temperature, daily events or clothing) that help your audience understand the intersecting nature of climate change, social, political and economic factors, and the experience of a family having to make a decision in that context. This approach will engage the emotional part of your audience’s minds, they will be more likely to remember what you said, and the example will provide an anchor point for future decisions on this issue.

In his New Yorker piece about conflict, climate change and migration in the Lake Chad region, journalist Ben Taub demonstrated the power of this approach. He wrote:

“Moussa Mainakinay was born in 1949 on Bougourmi, a dusty sliver in the lake’s southern basin. Throughout his childhood and teenage years, he never went hungry. The cows were full of milk. The islands were thick with vegetation. The lake was so deep that he couldn’t swim to the bottom, and there were so many fish that he could grab them with his hands. The lake had given Mainakinay and his ancestors everything — they drank from it, bathed in it, fished in it, and wove mats and baskets and huts from its reeds. In the seventies, Mainakinay noticed that the lake was receding. There had always been dramatic fluctuations in water level between the rainy and the dry seasons, but now it was clear that the mainland was encroaching. Floating masses of reeds and water lilies began to clog the remaining waterways, making it impossible to navigate old trading routes between the islands.

Lake Chad is the principal life source of the Sahel, a semi-arid band that spans the width of Africa and separates the Sahara, in the north, from the savanna, in the south. Around a hundred million people live there. For the next two decades, the entire region was stricken with drought and famine. The rivers feeding into Lake Chad dried up, and the islanders noticed a permanent decline in the size and the number of fish. Then a plague of tsetse flies descended on the islands. They feasted on the cows, transmitting a disease that made them sickly and infertile, and unable to produce milk. For the first time in Mainakinay’s life, the islanders didn’t have enough to eat. The local medicine man couldn’t make butter, which he would heat up and pour into people’s nostrils as a remedy for common ailments. Now, when the islanders were sick or malnourished, he wrote Quranic verses in charcoal on wooden boards, rinsed God’s words into a cup of lake water, and gave them the cloudy mixture to drink. By the end of the nineties, the lake, once the size of New Jersey, had shrunk by roughly ninety-five per cent, and much of the northern basin was lost to the desert. People started dying of hunger.”

It is also important to not rely on jargon that empties humanity and emotion from the issue. Jargon is any abstract term experts use to describe a phenomenon that is known by experts with shared knowledge of an issue. Leading with jargon undermines understanding by non-experts.

If you need to use jargon to introduce an idea, define the term once and then use the definition from then on. You might even use the story of an individual as a way to define the word and then refer to that story. If you continue to use jargon even after you’ve defined it, you are essentially creating a vocabulary test for your audience and not engaging them in ways that capture their attention and emotions.

For example, in What We Get Wrong About Climate Change and Migration, Alex Randall, project manager of the Climate Change and Migration Coalition, starts with the term climate-linked migration. After that, he uses language to help us visualize what that concept looks like. He writes, “for millions of people migration is already how they are adapting to climate change. Droughts, hurricanes, floods and sea level rise are all forcing people to move.”

You might also include art, film or photos to create a visceral experience for audiences and illustrate what displacement feels like. For example, Displacement: Uncertain Journeys, a project supported by The Platform on Disaster Displacement, works with artists to create popup galleries at international and intergovernmental conferences and meetings.

For example, exhibitions include artist Lars Jan’s work Holoscenes, a series of live performances designed to elicit various states of drowning to draw connections between human activity and the long term effects of climate change.

Science tells us that using visuals–both figurative and literally–will capture the attention of your audience, build an understanding of a particular issue and its context, and help them remember your message. Applying visual language is an essential tool for communicating complexity and ensuring abstract concepts are accessible to your audience.

This special publication is part of a partnership between the UN Refugee Agency and the University of Florida Center for Public Interest Communications. In an effort to move past communication strategies that simply “raise awareness” of an issue, this partnership aims to connect those working in the humanitarian sector with applicable insights from behavioral, cognitive and social science to make a lasting difference on the issues that matter most.

Thank you to Alex Randall, Erica Bower and Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat for their time and insight for this project.

This special report shares how we can apply behavioral, cognitive and social science to build understanding and support for complex issues. We focused on climate change displacement as it is one of the critical and most complex areas of work facing the humanitarian sector — and the entire global community. The special report is divided into five chapters:

Introduction: Communicating the Complexity of Displacement in a Changing Climate

Chapter One: Make Room for the Most Affected

Chapter Two: Use Visual Language

Chapter Three: Tell Stories

Chapter Four: Use Emotion with Intention

Chapter Five: Step Into the World of Your Community


Brascamp, Jan, Randolph Blake, and Tomas Knapen. “Negligible fronto-parietal BOLD activity accompanying unreportable switches in bistable perception.” Nature neuroscience 18.11 (2015): 1672.

Bauer, Lisa M., et al. “Word type effects in false recall: Concrete, abstract, and emotion word critical lures.” The American journal of psychology (2009): 469–481.

Graham, Jesse, Brian A. Nosek, and Jonathan Haidt. “The moral stereotypes of liberals and conservatives: Exaggeration of differences across the political spectrum.” PloS one 7.12 (2012): e50092.

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

UNHCR Innovation Service

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UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

The Arc

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

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