I hated school. I love education but I hated school. I particularly hated how they taught us metaphors. They made it complicated. It isn’t.
It would be easy for you to think that metaphors are those unfathomable things from English literature class - that have no connection to the world in which we live.
But you would be dead wrong.
Metaphors are all around us. They are everywhere. And they are powerful beyond belief.
Metaphors help us communicate difficult things. Because when we FEEL strongly, we often struggle to put it into words. A metaphor allows us to put complex feelings into a single word or phrase.
Let’s take the unpleasant topic of CHILD MURDERERS.
How do we feel about them?
We hate them. We despise them. And we struggle to understand them and their actions. We cannot fathom why they would hurt a child. We can't understand it.
For us, they are: MONSTERS.
The metaphor works well to explain this behaviour. Because what is a MONSTER?
A monster is inhuman.
A monster is capable of mindless violence.
A monster hurts without guilt or remorse.
Monsters should be hunted and caught and killed without mercy.
Monster is a metaphor that we use to help understand WHY another human could do the unthinkable and tells us how to feel about them too.
Likewise, during the Second World War, the Nazis called Jewish people - VERMIN - they turned them into rats in the minds of the public. They didn’t say they were LIKE rats, they said they WERE rats. Not humans. Not entitled to our sympathy and love. They were rats. And rats should be exterminated. They dehumanised an entire race of people with a METAPHOR so successfully that the horrors of the concentration camps were possible.
The SUN newspaper famously used the headline "Halt the Tide Now" and made migrants into an unstoppable and overwhelming force of nature, the SEA.
Now let’s think about the word ‘STAR’ - as in - SUPERSTAR. These are the metaphors we use to ELEVATE awesome people - like actors, musicians or players of sport.
What is a STAR?
Something high above us.
Something out of the reach of mere mortals.
Something that shines out from the darkness.
Something that amazes us.
Something that makes us wonder at its majesty.
Something we marvel at - from a distance.
Stars are also given out to children for good work. Stars are awarded as medals. We give 5-star reviews. Those are all metaphorical stars of course. (There’s not one sign of any gassy plasma held together by gravity.)
We elevate those people above us and call them stars. We don’t say they are LIKE stars (that’s a simile), we say they ARE stars. They are above us. They shine brightly. They are untouchable.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT TO YOU AND YOUR BUSINESS?
We are all in the business of communicating ideas. We communicate with colleagues, employees, suppliers, customers, clients, managers, directors, executive, shareholders, investors...
We want to communicate ideas to other people.
Ideas are hard.
Metaphors provide CLARITY. They turn difficult ideas into something easier to understand.
Metaphors conjure up WAY MORE than they literally mean.
They create an IMAGE that we can easily absorb and understand. We love images. We dream in images, we don't dream in words.
The image speaks to our imagination and then to our understanding.
Every time you use a metaphor, you communicate by painting a picture:
If we say that the team is at BREAKING POINT, we use a PHYSICS metaphor to paint a very rich, negative picture of the STRAIN that the team is under.
If we say our team is ON ITS LAST LEGS, we use a BEAST OF BURDEN metaphor to paint the picture of the team as a knackered old nag.
If we say our team is DOWN BUT NOT OUT, we use a BOXING metaphor to paint a picture of a difficult situation, but with the hope of regaining strength and fighting back.
If we say our team is a HIVE of ACTIVITY, we paint the picture of super productive BEES buzzing around us busily.
If we say that our team is FIRING ON ALL CYLINDERS, we use an engine metaphor to say that they are high performing.
Whether we communicate to one person, or a thousand, a metaphor is a powerful tool. Take care to use them wisely. Are you aware of the power of the METAPHORS you use in your business communications?
Mark Westbrook - Speaking Coach