“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.”
Aristotle and countless other masterful communicators have harnessed the power of metaphor to effectively persuade and inform.
Metaphors allow you to make the complex simple and the controversial palatable.
Conversely, metaphors allow you to create extraordinary meaning out of the seemingly mundane.
People often associate metaphor with poetry, literature, and art, but we all use metaphor in our day-to-day conversation, often without realizing it.
Because they are so effective at instantly communicating both tangible and conceptual information, metaphorical expressions are woven throughout the fabric of the English language.
Metaphors ignite understanding
Consider the following:
- She has a special place in my heart.
- I’m at the height of my career.
- Education is the gateway to success.
- Life in the fast lane.
- She followed in her mother’s footsteps.
- A blanket of snow fell last night.
While metaphor is pervasive in our everyday discourse, the strategic use of metaphorical expression can be one of the most persuasive techniques in your linguistic toolbox.
Simply altering a single word, phrase, or story can make the difference between the success and failure of an argument or presentation.
Lee Iacocca and the Chrysler Safety Net
In her book Metaphorically Selling, Anne Miller recounts the tale of the 1980 Congressional grant of $1.2 billion in loan guarantees to the then-failing Chrysler Corporation.
To avoid the bankruptcy of Chrysler and the inevitable loss of thousands of jobs, Lee Iacocca went to Washington looking for a bailout.
Of course, a bailout was the last thing Congress was interested in providing at that point. Iacocca reframed the request using the vivid metaphor of a “safety net” that would prevent a significant percentage of American citizens from falling into economic turmoil.
With that one simple phrase, Iacocca turned the perception of the loans away from a potential blight on taxpayers, and toward an exercise in responsible government.
The power of metaphor: Visual words rock harder
Metaphors are so powerful because of one simple fact of human psychology: We react more readily to the emotional than the rational.
Thanks to the differences between the two hemispheres of our brains, what catches our attention and sticks with us is what we see and feel via our right brain.
After that, the rational left hemisphere can be engaged by the relational nature of the metaphorical information itself.
Put another way, visual words work better than words lacking in imagery when it comes to effective communication, as long as they also satisfy our left brain by being something we can logically relate to.
Iacocca substituted the concept of the “safety net” in lieu of the inevitable “bailout” stigma in order to invoke a strong image in the mind, which also coincided with many people’s view of the purpose of responsible government.
The “safety net” visual reframed the issue, thereby allowing the members of Congress to logically justify the loan guarantees not as a corporate favor, but as the duty of a sound governing body.
How to market metaphorically
Crafting great metaphors takes time and thought, even for the most proficient of wordsmiths.
Stay tuned to Copyblogger, becauase after we’re through with this upcoming series of articles, I’m convinced that anyone will be able to harness the power of metaphor to become a stronger content marketer, even if your vocabulary is as bad as, like, whatever. 🙂
Next in the series:
Metaphor, Simile, and Analogy: What’s the Difference?
5 Smart Ways to Use Metaphors to Create Irresistible Content
The Persuasive Power of Analogy
Reader Comments (76)
Chris Baskind says
This article is a keen blade for rending everyday writing from that which is truly memorable.
Ryan Holiday says
It’s not just that their important today, they’ve been important in the history of evolution. Julian Jaynes in the book
The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind asserted that the metaphor was essential in the development of consciousness. In fact the whole concept of I or You is a one.
So there is a reason people are so drawn to those who can utilize the power of metaphor. It’s in our nature.
Marc Brinitzer says
So right. I try to use this when sharing complex ideas with clients. A good metaphor paints a picture your reader (or listener) can grasp instantly. Dishing up the same information in word form is an invitation to nap.
On the other token, I love it when newspeople mix their metaphors.
Robert Lehrer says
Marc, I want to make sure that I comprehend one of your statements:
“Dishing up the same information in word form is an invitation to nap.” Are you saying that metaphors bore the reader?
If so, I disagree. I believe that written metaphors stimulate the reader and keep the writing more interesting. If I misunderstood you, will you please clarify your comment? Thanks!
Marc Brinitzer says
Sorry Robert, that was confusing.
I just meant that using metaphor to inject an concept quickly into your reader’s mind is far more effective than massaging them to sleep with a torrent of words.
But that is “just the tip of the ice cube.”
Armen : : iffect.net says
Can a person learn to apply the principles you teach (or some of them) without even thinking about it, or is it always an effort?
I do think about my writing, but find it difficult to determine whether it is well written or not.
Armen, it comes more naturally the more you write. That’s why the best advice I can give you is to try to apply this stuff in your own writing, and write as often as you can.
Daan van den Bergh says
In my opinion it is also something that comes natural.
I.e. In Amsterdam we’re big fans of comparing; we speak in similes and metaphors in daily conversation.
On the other hand if you get used to it, the risk of using it too often is bigger. In that case it’ll start to look like rambling in writing, which offcourse will result in boring the HELL out of your readers. 🙂
Anyhow, good point. Diving it to your followup articles right now!
your writing is like ultraman kicing the ass of godzilla reptile monster.
It’s important to note the difference between a metaphor and its (arguably) less powerful cousin the simile. Similes are pretty easy to identify since they use ‘like’ or ‘as’ to make the comparison between two things.
To take one of the examples from the post:
Metaphor: A blanket of snow fell last night.
Simile: Last night’s snow was like a blanket covering everything.
I think the original poster gets the difference … but drops the ball in the final line with:
“… even if your vocabulary is as bad as, like, whatever.”
… which is clearly a poor simile and not an ugly metaphor.
Great post though and sorry to be picky!
Hey Peter, this post is the first in a series, and the next installment differentiates between metaphor, simile and analogy.
And rather than “dropping the ball,” everything about the closing joke was intentional, and it’s not even a proper simile. 😉
Heather Miller-Rodriguez says
I got that it was a joke! I’m really looking forward to this series on metaphor, so excited in fact, that I was inspired to comment for the first time! Thank you for all your valuable tips and lessons, your blog is a frequent resource for me.
Gillian Martin says
Copy blogger, you are the Mr Miagi to my Karate Kid. Wax on, wax off….
Misssymartin from Scotland
John Wesley says
Why do I think this post will inspire the usage of a tremendous number of cliches?
Brandon Merkl says
and to cement those metaphors, what better place to go than http://www.chainofthoughts.com to see what people associate with different words or phrases
have you ever read aristotle? i’m pretty sure he could not be counted as a great writer. most of what he wrote was only half-finished and in note form.
this is not to say that he was a poor thinker; he’s ideas and observations are very much applicable in today’s world. however, calling him a great communicator is an elephant of an exaggeration. special thanks should go to the translators for making aristotle comprehensible.
Marc Brinitzer says
As a TV newscaster said recently, “we’re walking a fine tightrope here”
What do you do when you are up against the wall in coming up with a metaphor?
Kathryn Fitzgerald says
Great series–I’m sure your readers will greatly benefit from a succinct primer on metaphor, simile, and analogy. I did my dissertation on using it skillfully in developing the branding and communication strategies for complex, “really new” products and services. But understanding at least the basics is critical for converting casual surfers into a commited congregation of devotees–and we all know “stickiness” is make or break for long-term blogging success.
Thanks also for reminding me that I need to pick up Miller’s book to see how she’s distilled the key concepts for marketing and PR contexts.
P.S. gotta love the Chicago Trib blurb for her book–“Metaphors are communication home runs. This book shows you how to hit them.”
Your readers who are interested in more depth from one of the top academics studying metaphorical THOUGHT as opposed to just language might want to read works by George Lakoff such as More than Pure Reason or Metaphors We Live By. (They’re fairly accessible to a general audience)
Motorcycle Guy says
Is metaphor the original greek word?
Kian Ann says
Wonderful stuff Brian. Actually I really love it when trainers or writers use metaphors to explain concepts easily!
It’s a good experience, Thank you.
From Politics and the English Language: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure or speech which you are used to seeing in print”.
The point (I think): even metaphors can become hackneyed, and consequently lose their value.
The quote from Aristoteles is not a bad opener, but I believe this one would have served you well as your closing argument by underlining that regardless how great metaphors are they cannot stand alone: “Imagination could hardly do without metaphor, for imagination is, literally, the moving around in one’s mind of images, and such images tend commonly to be metaphoric. Creative minds, as we know, are rich in images and metaphors, and this is true in science and art alike. The difference between scientist and artist has little to do with the ways of the creative imagination; everything to do with the manner of demonstration and verification of what has been seen or imagined.” Robert A. Nisbet
What about the distinction between a tired metaphor and something new or an old one with a twist?
“Old hat” metaphors, or those that have become cliched, bear the danger of having a reader’s brain gloss right over the impact point – metaphors are best used to call attention to a point so you have to grab the reader. Give them something that their mind doesn’t immediately jump to, stop them in their tracks so they can say “Wait a minute…oh, i see.”
Just a thought!
Pinny Cohen says
I agree with you about the emotional selling, although some people break free of that and are persuaded better with technical selling. I discussed this a while back in this post: http://www.pinnycohen.com/2007/01/14/marketing-wisdom/technical-selling-vs-cliche-selling/
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.
Are there any sample extended metaphors in here? Metaphors describe somethings rather exaggeratedly yet are enjoyable than saying ,’She fell.’
Instead say that ,’She was trash that slipped its way out of the bag onto the unbreakable driveway.’ Ok. Kind of lame but I think you get my point.
Frankie Cooper says
I love it when metaphors are used in writing it helps me to visualize what the person is trying to get across and help me to learn.
Rick Clark says
I was so excited about these ideas that I only gave credit to the person (Kevin Tan) who’s link led me here. Unfortunately I neglected to give the credit where it’s really due to (Brian Clark) the author. My apologies.
Good site, great advice, writing is a skill like any other that will improve with practice, even the most gifted authors continue writing in order to get better at it. I’ve had dreams of writing for a long time and started out by visualising the story but never got to writing anything down. My head is full of stories, the hesitation to write things down is because you wonder if others will find your writing interesting. Anyway I started blogging in November last year and it’s a great way of expressing creativy and honing my skills. Another skill that improves writing is reading!
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