My niece recently spent a few weeks in South Korea, sending home evocative missives about her travels. In one email, she likened a short, uncomfortable flight she took to an island to being shot out of a slingshot. She kept the metaphor alive paragraphs later, when she described the return trip: “it was sad to leave, but we sling-shotted back to Seoul…” Can anyone fail to imagine what that flight felt like?
Metaphors are not just the tools of novelists and poets. They’re an essential part of every writer’s toolkit. And they have magical powers:
- Metaphors have the power to take the abstract and make it concrete. Think of them as the verbal equivalent of a really good diagram.
- Metaphors can be a kind of shorthand. A metaphorical sentence, phrase or single word can fill in for a paragraph or more of description.
- Best of all, metaphors are sticky. When done well, they seem to hang around in your head a whole lot longer than straightforward information.
I should explain that when I say “metaphor” I’m using the term loosely, to encompass similes, as well. Remember the difference? Metaphors imply a comparison, without saying it outright, as in: “All the world’s a stage.” Similes use “like” or “as” to make the comparison explicit, as in “My love is like a red, red rose.” But for our purposes, as workplace communicators, they both come down to the same thing: making information more accessible—getting our point across.
One of the e-newsletters I subscribe to is called “The Metaphor Minute,” from sales consultant Anne Miller. Each monthly issue promotes the use of metaphor in communications—especially business communications. Among other things, Miller collects and shares examples of ways people have aced presentations and clinched sales simply by harnessing the power of metaphor. I always read these examples, as well as pay close attention to metaphors whenever and wherever I come across them, because I’ve discovered that making a good metaphor isn’t easy. It’s especially hard in informational communications, where extravagant metaphors can be out of place. (It’s harder to create a more subdued, natural-sounding metaphor.) Nonetheless, it’s a skill that can be developed with practice. I know this because I’ve found the more I write, the more metaphors pop, unbidden, into my head.
If metaphors aren’t yet popping into your head, here’s how I’d go about hunting them down:
- Start by pinpointing the exact feeling, situation, characteristic, etc., you want to compare to something else.
- Next make a list of everything you can think of that represents the same feeling, situation or characteristic. Trying to capture “fast?” Make a list of things that go fast: cheetahs, sports cars, rockets, light… Trying to capture “high-quality?” Rolls Royce, Rembrandt, Stradivarius… Trying to make a comparison? List some like-minded comparisons: McDonald’s vs. Lutece; Big Wheels vs. a racing bike; Manhattan, Kansas vs. Manhattan, New York.
- Take it a step further. For more original metaphors, stretch the comparison to things that go fast only sometimes: a kid chasing an ice cream truck; a mouse fleeing a cat; a horse in the Kentucky Derby. For corporate prose, you may end up backing down from these more elaborate phrasings, but it’s still a good way to exercise your metaphor-finding muscle.
- Eliminate the clichés. Metaphors repeated too often become clichés and clichés lose most—if not all—of their magical powers. (Does anyone think “fruit-filled pastry” when they hear “easy as pie?”)
- Finally—and this holds especially true for informational communications—see if you can tamp down the metaphor into a simple, quieter phrase. You might not want to say “this new system will make your work flow faster than a sprinter on steroids” but you can certainly say, “this new system will make your work flow at Olympic speeds.”
And while you’re practicing, keep a watchful eye and ear out for metaphors around you. When you find one that really works for you—maybe it clarifies something definitively, maybe it sums up something perfectly, maybe it just sticks with you—take the time to consider why it works so well. Building your metaphor muscle is like any other kind of training regimen—you can learn a lot by listening to the pros.
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It’s National Work and Family Month. Do you know where your work-life programs are? Funny—I’ve just blogged on that very topic in the Huffington Post.