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In his TED talk, author James Geary claims that we utter about six metaphors a minute. One thing we know for sure is that metaphors pervade our everyday language. Advertisers and political speech writers use metaphors to influence our thinking. In business, a metaphor can be a dynamic tool to power your communication, to persuade and inspire others to listen to you. As Geary says, "Metaphor conditions our interpretations of the stock market and, through advertising, it surreptitiously infiltrates our purchasing decisions ... in the minds of businesspeople, it spurs creativity and innovation.”
The simplest definition of a metaphor is that it helps us understand one thing by referring to another. A metaphor deepens our understanding by comparing the unfamiliar with the familiar, the theoretical with the concrete, the complex with the simple. We do this unconsciously when we use everyday clichés such as "the secret sauce," "it's in the company DNA," or "best of breed." Metaphors that have turned into a cliché become worn-out language. They are better left on the shelf with other stock phrases that clutter our communication and don't inspire. What works are fresh metaphors—they make others want to lean in to hear more of what you have to say.
Most businesspeople avoid creating metaphors because they don't fully understand their value in drawing and maintaining attention; but above all, they avoid them because they don't know how to use them. Here is a brief primer on how to come up with verbal gems.
Become a metaphor anthropologist by taking notice of novel metaphors you come across. If you read or hear one that grabs your attention because it's original, write it down for inspiration when you prepare your own presentation or speech. One example is from Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch, who talks about obstacles in achieving our dreams: "But remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people." Another example is from entrepreneur and author Seth Godin, a master of the metaphor. He uses the metaphor of jazz vs. bowling to show the different ways we approach work. Jazz leaves room for the imagination, for creativity, flexibility and adaptation, while bowling is more linear and "all about one number: the final score ... and yet ... when we get to work, most of us choose to bowl."
You don’t have to depend on metaphors from external sources; you can create your own. Here's how: Choose the concept you want to spice up with a metaphor—let's say you want to explain that without change, your organization will not progress. Think about the negative characteristics that come to mind for something that doesn't change: It stands still, it can get run over, it stagnates, it can't go forward, it stays behind while others are moving past it, it blocks what's behind, it creates a gridlock. You get the idea. Now think about what associations any of these words bring to mind. For example, the word "stagnate" might bring to mind a body of water. When water is confined, it accumulates debris, and the water becomes stagnant. But when there is wind and the water is allowed to move unrestricted, there is a flow and the water is fresh and rejuvenated. Now you can develop the metaphor: A lack of change in an organization can be likened to a stagnant pool of water, littered with the debris of outdated modes and practices that hamper the flow of fresh ideas. For additional inspiration, check out this helpful article on metaphor writing.
Many movies contain inspiring metaphors that can move people. For example, in Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino delivers a rousing speech to his football team. He uses a metaphor of winning by inches: "The inches we need are everywhere around us ... we fight for that inch ... because we know, when we add up all those inches, that's going to make the ... difference between winning and losing."
Anne Miller, author of Metaphorically Selling: How To Use The Magic of Metaphors To Sell, Persuade, & Explain Anything To Anyone, explains the benefits of using a metaphor that anchors your products, service, or personal uniqueness in the minds of your clients to experiences or people they already know. For example, Cisco Systems routers promote integrated security for corporate computer systems. How does it anchor this product that shields data from hackers? The ad says, "I am a snarling pack of dobermans." This is a powerful image of a pack of dogs that will sniff out burglars and vandals and protect your company. Another example of anchoring comes from a Web-design company: "Web design is a tricky business. You can get a beautiful looking result, but if it doesn't work, it's useless, like a Porsche with a faulty engine. We deliver websites that both look good and perform well." What vivid image can you use to define your business?
There are many sources for metaphors online. Here are three to start you off: Business Metaphors, Analogies, and Similes; Metaphor Examples, and Metaphor Sites. These sites contain a wealth of metaphors from business to legal to military.
Listening to some of the best locker room speeches can motivate you when you're preparing to speak to your staff or at an event where others look to you for inspiration, especially in difficult times. Almost always, these speeches make use of metaphors to fire people up, or to celebrate a win. Watch, for example, Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano as he gives a post-game speech to his team. He says: "... you guys were living in the vision, and you weren't living in circumstances ... you refused to live in circumstances, and you decided consciously, as a team, as a family, to live in the vision. And that's why you bring things home like you brought home today." Juxtaposing the vision to circumstances is a powerful reminder to people to keep their eye on the ball—on what matters—and not to let whatever is going on around them derail them.
Visual metaphors enliven your slides and grab attention. However, many speakers use visual metaphors that have become clichés. For example, a visual metaphor for the importance of thinking outside the box might predictably show a man coming out of a box. Compare this with an image of a cubic watermelon or a skeleton X-ray with a lock. Don't use the first visual that comes to mind, as it's likely to be what everyone else would do. Search for more abstract or imaginative images as metaphors. Don't use an image just for decoration; choose an images that says something.
Just as a golf pro picks and chooses clubs based on the demands of the shot, when you use a metaphor, consider which metaphor is appropriate for your particular audience. For example, with some groups, war metaphors have a strong impact, while with others, family metaphors may have a greater impact. Metaphors also have a cultural meaning that may not be readily understood by those outside the culture. When it comes to metaphors, one size doesn't fit all. Think of your listeners and select the metaphor that best highlights the concept you want to amplify and is the best fit for that audience.
No matter how successful a metaphor is, guard against becoming a prisoner of one or two recurring metaphors that you use often in your presentations or speeches. Metaphors can quickly become stale from overuse. Continue to update your metaphors. It will pay lifelong dividends for your career.
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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