How to Improve Your Stories With Metaphors

(Part 1 of 2 parts)

We’re all specialists today. That’s great for developing the next new thing, but terrible for the art of communication.

Because we hang out in “micro-cultures,” or groups of people that have the same interests, backgrounds and jargon, we don’t know how to communicate well to the “outside world.” The only people who seem to “get” us are our coworkers. (And even that’s iffy.)

Fog comes on little cat feet
As in Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Fog,” great metaphors help us see concepts more clearly.

So, how do we explain to others – customers or cocktail partiers — what we do and why our product or service meet their needs? If you’re a research scientist explaining the activities of a moon rover or a doctor consulting with his patient about his upcoming colonoscopy, you tell a little story — a little story called a metaphor.

Metaphors are stories

Metaphors are concise “stories” that help specialists communicate with people outside their own specialty. As with biblical parables, stories allow us to communicate complicated principles or ideas by drawing comparisons with simple, concrete and familiar things. If, for example, we were trying to explain how a parachute works, we might use the metaphor/story of blowing dandelion seeds from the stem and watching them drift slowly in the wind to the ground.

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space,” says writer Orson Scott Card. Like a lever and fulcrum, a metaphor enables us to quickly and easily do lots of heavy lifting as communicators. We’ve all learned difficult concepts this way. But how can we devise these workhorses of speech (Hey! That’s a metaphor!) to create better appreciation for our ideas?

Whether we’re trying to be funny at a party, write the next best seller or sell a product, fresh metaphors are memorable and powerful. While they should arise organically from our communication, the most effective metaphors don’t roll off the tongue – they require advanced thought. Without preplanning, our minds veer toward clichés (which we should “avoid like the plague”).

Metaphors are figures of speech

First, a definition or two. A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly constructs an analogy between two things or ideas. The analogy is conveyed by the use of a metaphorical word in place of some other word.  An example: “She is a rose between two thorns.”

A metaphor’s close cousin (or maybe even a little sister) is a simile. A simile is a figure of speech that indirectly compares two different things by employing the words “like”, “as” or “than”. An example: “She is as protective as a mother bear.”

Both of these figures of speech can produce helpful analogies, but metaphors are stronger than similes. While great poets employ various figures of speech, including similes, generally metaphors are considered more “highly evolved” in the literary world. Consider this line from Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog”: “The fog comes / on little cat feet.” This delightful morsel would be destroyed by turning it into a simile.

Consider if the line were changed to: “The fog comes in ‘as if’ it were on little cat feet,” or “The fog ‘is like’ little cat feet.” The joining words are clunky. They draw the reader’s (or listener’s) attention away from the beauty of the analogy toward the sentence structure itself. We see the scaffolding rather than the cathedral (another metaphor for you!).

So how do you write your own great metaphors?

Stay tuned for Part 2 . . .



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