By Jim Signorelli
I recently heard Ellen Degeneress describe people who talk too much.
“Being with people like this,” she said, “is like being on a highway without exit signs when you have to pee.”
Back in the day, when I used to wear ties to work, a colleague once asked me, “Why do all of yours look like Walt Disney sneezed on your shirt?”
I have a friend who is a whiz at Trival Pursuit and describes herself as “the Imelda Marcos of facts nobody cares about.”
Metaphors, analogies and similes (herein they will all be lumped together as metaphors for the sake of simplicity), are very powerful tools for turning an ordinary expression into something extraordinary. Like stories, they can simplfy the complex, wrap a fact in something that generates an emotional reaction and help us visualize abstractions. Above all, they plant concepts firmly into our brain and help us remember things we might otherwise forget.
For these reasons, metaphors can be very powerful tools for leaders, sales people and marketers. Here are just some quick examples of how they might be used in various business situations:
The Elevator Speech: Instead of telling someone you’re in quality control, you might be like the guy who looks for the penny in the pile of dimes. If you’re in R&D, you might be the company’s taste tester. If you’re in sales, you might think of your job as the GPS that helps companies finds a better route.
For Framing Product Benefits: Instead of talking about time-savings, you might say that your product allows a company to run longer distances without getting winded. If you’re selling improved ROI potential, it might be that your product finds profits hiding behind big rocks. Perhaps your product controls spending. But what if you said it was like using LoJack to find lost savings?
For Technical Explanations: You might define RAM as the number of a computer’s brain cells. Using your data base could be compared to a well-trained scent hound that sniffs out potential buyers. I once heard content marketing described as gifts that keeps on giving.
Whether or not these are the right metaphors to use for the specific purposes I’ve identified, it should be clear that metaphors have unlimited potential expressing ideas simply, memorably and in wasy that engage audiences.
Coming up with metaphors
Metaphors fall into two piles. First, there are the “ stand by’s, sometimes called cliches. These are metaphors that have lost meaning from overuse, i.e. “His head was spinning when I gave him the bad news,’ “they shot down my proposal,” they “lit up like a Christmas tree when she talked about the bonus program.” These may help you to clarify what you are talking about, but they hardly do much to engage listeners or wake them up to new, more identifiable perspectives.
The opposite of the stand-by metaphor is one that stands out. If you were to think of information in terms of waves coming at you, the highest, most forceful waves are the one’s that stand out metaphors create. You know you’ve heard one when a wave hits you with a perfect and original connection to something else with which you are familiar.
Coming up with stand out metaphors can be challenging. However, there are any number of techniques you can employ that are not within the scope of this article. For more information you can turn to Mind Tools, or you can Google metaphor lists for inspiration. One of the simplest techniques that I have found useful is to write down on the left side of a sheet of paper all the things you or your product does. Then on the other side write down people, places or things that do something similar. Don’t edit anything. Just free associate as many comparative actions as you can with specific actions that you or your product performs. Sooner or later you are bound to find a stand out metaphor that is original and one you believe fits. Once you’ve found one that you think works, test it out on different people to gauge reactions. If you see eyebrows go up and/or a smiles coming across faces, you’ll know you have a winner.
However you arrive at them, stand-out metaphors are well worth the effort that goes into creating them.