Metaphorically Speaking, Showing and Thinking

Metaphors, like this one about gay marriage, touch the familiar and trigger emotions that can persuade, explain or entertain. Some of the most powerful metaphors are visuals that elegantly make a point with few or no words.

Metaphors, like this one about gay marriage, touch the familiar and trigger emotions that can persuade, explain or entertain. Some of the most powerful metaphors are visuals that elegantly make a point with few or no words.

Getting noticed is getting harder. With a lot of money, you can pummel your audience with advertising, assuming they are still tuning in where the advertising is placed. Without a lot of money, the best course is to penetrate the brains of your intended audience wherever they are.

Metaphors are a proven path into people’s brains. By piggybacking onto something familiar and that you can sense, your message has a better chance to get noticed, triggering a memory and evoking an emotion. Neuroscientists have found that emotional responses are accompanied by physical reactions, which are key to actual decision-making.

Journalist and writer James Geary said in a TED Talk that “metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate, learn, discover and invent. Metaphor is a way of thought before it is a way with words.”

Linguist Adele Goldberg says a familiar line such as “that was a sweet comment" can activate human taste centers and the portion of the brain linked to fear or pleasure. The phrase touches emotions and memory. More importantly, it sticks because our subconsciousness tends to be literal.

Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick point out the value of “concrete” references to create mental “stickiness.” Something is concrete, according to the Heath brothers, when it can be “described or detected by human senses.” One example – a V-8 engine is a concrete reference contrasted to a high-performance engine, which is more abstract.

Metaphors add concrete to what you say. Instead of noting a box of movie popcorn contains 20 grams of fat, you could more persuasively say the box contains more fat than a bacon and eggs breakfast, Big Mac lunch and steak dinner combined. People know what fat is, but they can taste, see and smell bacon and eggs, a hamburger and a steak.

Writing for ragan.com, Nick Morgan said metaphors reach the senses with “sweet lines, loud opinions, beautiful phrases, soft poetry and smelly scenes.” Put another way, metaphors put abstract concepts into concrete – and more familiar and digestible – terms.

While we commonly think of metaphors as words, pictures and symbols are often more powerful metaphors. Icons are a great example. We see a light bulb icon and our minds associate it with a “bright idea” or “innovation.” Familiar shapes or visual devices serve as handy metaphors, such as faces of clocks, luggage tags and party invites. Their shape sends a message our minds receive.

Visual metaphors help propel the eye through visual explanations and infographics. Metaphors also can take the form of familiar formats like a flipchart or a website with easy-to-find navigation that enhance user experience and lessen frustration over finding what they want. Pattern recognition can be a key to people’s willingness to explore or engage.

And there is such a thing as an anti-metaphor, which psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Writers refer to it as a “man-bites-dog” statement that startles a listener. Geary’s example: “Some jobs are jails.” The juxtaposition isn’t familiar, but the imagery is concrete and the meaning is clear.

Metaphors can help you get noticed, make your point and earn valuable media coverage. Hillary Clinton showed how in her speech this week taking aim at Donald Trump’s business record. “He's written a lot of books about business,” she said. “They all seem to end at Chapter 11."

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.