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.

The Blistering Battle Over Facts

Trust in science and the scientific community is declining as people cling to pseudoscientific beliefs that align with their intuition, cultural domain or politics.

Trust in science and the scientific community is declining as people cling to pseudoscientific beliefs that align with their intuition, cultural domain or politics.

TV detective Joe Friday asked for “just the facts.” Today, facts are under siege as science and pseudoscience wage war to win the public’s confidence.

Atul Gawande, a former surgeon and public health researcher writing for The New Yorker, explores why science has gotten a bad rap, even as scientific knowledge has exponentially expanded, producing health breakthroughs, breathtaking discoveries in space and practical advances that have improved our everyday lives.

“People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs,” Gawande writes. A mom who says her child was fine until he was vaccinated and then was diagnosed as autistic becomes more believable than scientific evidence rejecting any causal relationship.

Gawande cites “deeply alarming trends” unearthed by sociologist Gordon Gauchat who tracked survey data from 1974 and 2010 that reflected an increase in distrust of the scientific community. The increase was most marked among political conservatives, even those with college degrees. “In 1974, conservatives with college degrees had the highest level of trust in science and the scientific community,” Gauchat found. “Today, they have the least.”

Gauchat explained cultural domains “generating their own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of the scientific community.” Some of the homespun “science” comes from religious groups. But increasingly, industry manufactures pseudo facts as part of disinformation campaigns to discredit scientific findings on climate change or the evidence behind new regulations.

And Gauchat says this isn’t just a conservative phenomenon. Political liberals are skeptical of the medical establishment and challenge data showing genetically modified crops have done more good than harm.

“As varied as these groups are, they are all alike in one way,” Gawande concludes. “They all harbor sacred beliefs that they do not consider open to question.”

In the world of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories reign. There are fake experts. Data is cherry-picked. Logical fallacies abound. And real research is mocked as inadequate or insufficient. Real science doesn’t make facts easy to discern with clunky peer review processes, obscure journals and out-of-context press releases.

Gawande notes that attacking pseudoscience has the perverse effect of strengthening the resolve of the disciples of false facts. He points to research that shows efforts to debunk bad science backfires, in part because it helps to spread the false facts more broadly.

A better approach to bolster credible scientific findings, he says, is to point out their benefits. Instead of disputing the autism-from-vaccination claim, focus on the positive outcomes of vaccines to eliminate many childhood diseases, which can be demonstrated by localized situations where vaccinations decline and diseases such as measles recurred.

Gawande says it also is important “to expose the bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people.” This requires teaching people – all people – to have a scientific perspective on weighing facts.

“Having a scientific understanding of the world is fundamentally about how you judge which information to trust,” Gawande says. “It doesn’t mean poring through the evidence on every question yourself. You can’t.” You can’t simply trust someone with credentials. Good science, Gawande explains, is social science where a hive mentality swarms findings, tests and retests theories and inches toward factual understanding. Or as Max Planck dryly observed, “science advances one funeral at a time.”

More than ever before, Gawande concludes, “how you think matters.” Facts aren’t rooted in ideology and aren’t confirmed by intuition. Facts emerge from ”curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness and discipline.” In other words, from healthy skepticism and real scientific inquiry.

Online Quizzes: Recreational and Informative

Online quizzes, like this one from AARP, are all the rage because they are an entertaining form of customer engagement. But of course, they also can be engagingly informative.

Online quizzes, like this one from AARP, are all the rage because they are an entertaining form of customer engagement. But of course, they also can be engagingly informative.

People shrink from responding to phone surveys, but they trip over themselves to participate in online questionnaires, like BuzzFeed’s personality quizzes

While public opinion pollsters have to make more calls to achieve a representative sample on a phone survey, people eagerly take online quizzes on anything and everything from personality types and careers to celebrities, dog breeds and sex. As changes in the marketplace are complicating traditional polling methods, maybe now is the time to consider the potential of online quizzes as an alternative.

Yes, the two have some big differences. Where public opinion polls dig for people’s views, online quizzes often only offer a chance for a few minutes of pleasurable escape. Public opinion polls, of course, are intended to produce findings. Online quizzes, on the other hand, are about fun and engagement, not hard numbers.

So yes, online quizzes may not generate “data” in the truest sense. However, they do reflect popular themes and gratify people’s narcissistic obsessions, especially those of the “me” generation. Why do people love me? What career should I pursue? Which superhero do I resemble? Who am I really?

Online quizzes aren’t just for the kids, though. AARP posts trivia games and online quizzes about entertainment, leisure, money management and dementia symptoms. In its effort to protect against elder financial abuse, AARP created “Catch the con quiz” featuring Frank Abagnale, Jr., whose story of outsmarting victims and the FBI was told in the Steven Spielberg movie Catch Me If You Can.

Ultimately, quizzes are just a cheaper version of contests to stimulate interaction. There usually aren’t any prizes or judges involved – people judge for themselves. But if a brand can glean tidbits of information about people from their quiz answers, it is engagement with a purpose.

In some cases, online quizzes can have an educational value. Participants can discover some unknown facts about subjects that interest them. And they can learn what they don’t know.

BuzzFeed is one of the leading practitioners of online quizzes. The site posts just about any kind of personality quiz imaginable, with fetching headlines that resemble a call to action. Data indicates BuzzFeed’s quizzes have drawn millions more page views than the company’s other content. 

The bottom line is that as polling faces participation challenges, online quizzes are enjoying unprecedented popularity, and they can help turn your electronic platform into a game board. While many topics are mostly for just fun, online quizzes can be a gentle introduction to more serious topics.

Online quizzes are more recreation than research, but that doesn’t diminish their value as an outreach tool that gets people talking.

Influencer Marketing Is a Good Investment

People trust other people more than advertising or promotions, which makes influencer marketing initiatives a good investment with long-term dividends.

People trust other people more than advertising or promotions, which makes influencer marketing initiatives a good investment with long-term dividends.

Influencer marketing is assuming a similar mission-critical role as influentials in market research.

Influentials are the people other people turn to for good advice, whether it’s what camera to buy or who to hire to remodel your kitchen. In research, influentials are a valuable resource because they are typically well-informed and willing to share what they know. They provide researchers with a clear window to see the wonders and warts of a product, service or idea.

Market influencers are the people others trust for advice on a buying decision. You don’t have to be a celebrity to be an influencer. In fact, most influencers today are bloggers or vloggers who offer views and advice in concentrated areas, whether it’s gluten-free food or smart parenting tips.

There is an analog to market influencers in the crisis communications space – third-party validation. Claims that an environmental spill has been cleaned up or that a financial practice has been corrected carry more weight if an independent third party verifies the claim. That party is essentially a “market influencer.”

The underlying truth is that people are prone to trust other people more than advertising or promotional pitches. A corollary is that brand managers, marketers and public affairs professionals often overlook the prowess of influencer marketing initiatives, especially ones that can ignite with a powerful employee advocacy campaign.

Jay Baer of Convince & Convert says influencer marketing is shockingly more successful than digital advertising, and he undertook a study to prove his point. Baer worked with a digital marketing firm and a research company that specializes in food to persuade 258 fitness and food influencers to create content related to Silk Almond Milk and its Meatless Monday initiative. The content was allowed to pulse out organically on social media without any paid promotion.

“Households exposed to influencer marketing purchased 10 percent more Silk products than the control group,” Baer reported. The return on investment after 12 months for the influencer marketing outreach was 11 times greater than the cost of banner ads, he added.

There are extended values as well, Baer explains. Influencer marketing content has a shelf life that keeps generating impressions. Brands can repurpose the content, which becomes in effect testimonials from trusted sources. And, the cost to produce the content is borne by the influencer.

‘We’ve known for years that online influencers can generate net-new impressions, clicks and even e-commerce sales,” Baer says. “But this new study demonstrates that online influencer marketing yields offline purchase shifts, too.”

Traffic Congestion Should Drive Transportation Innovation

As traffic congestion worsens, frustrated motorists, planners and politicians are starting to demand new ideas, including giant buses that straddle roadways, using airspace not wider right of ways.

As traffic congestion worsens, frustrated motorists, planners and politicians are starting to demand new ideas, including giant buses that straddle roadways, using airspace not wider right of ways.

Mayor Charlie Hales says Portland should be viewed as a major American city, and the worsening level of congestion here proves his point. Portland ranks ninth among the most traffic-jammed cities in America, trailing Washington, D.C., but worse than Chicago.

The good news about growing congestion: the situation is getting bad enough that motorists, planners and politicians are demanding fresh ideas and better answers. 

First the bad news. According to the TomTom Traffic Index, North American traffic congestion has jumped 17 percent since 2008 compared to a 13 percent global increase. Congestion declines in Europe, especially in Italy and Spain, may be due to weaker economic performance.

A more recent survey by INRIX that was reported in the Portland Tribune pinpointed several Portland-area corridors as among the most congested in the country. No surprise to regular Portland-area commuters and truckers, they include potions of Highway 26, Highway 217, I-5, I-84 and I-205. 

The growing presence of light rail, buses, cars and pedestrians across Portland adds to the congestion on surface roads.

The growing presence of light rail, buses, cars and pedestrians across Portland adds to the congestion on surface roads.

“Urbanization continues to drive increased congestion in major cities worldwide,” the INRIX survey said. “Strong economies, population growth, higher employment rates and declining gas prices have resulted in more drivers on the road and more time wasted in traffic."

The Portland Tribune cited a report by the Value of Jobs Coalition that projects worsening congestion could cost the Oregon economy $1 billion by 2040, with most of that price tag in the Portland area.

At a personal level, slower commutes can eat up between 50 and 60 hours per driver a year. Slow-motion traffic often becomes an invitation to check out phone messages or engage in other distracted driving activities, which can lead to accidents that slow down traffic even more. Or as one cynical Portland driver put it, “A fender bender can bring Portland traffic to a crashing halt.”

Now some good news. Los Angeles, which remains the most congested city in America, is attempting to diversify its transportation network with an expanded light rail network to take pressure off its overloaded freeways. Some of Portland’s highly congested corridors already have parallel light rail routes. Planners are now exploring a new light rail line extending from downtown Portland south to Tigard and Tualatin.

The challenge of light rail, street cars and buses is they are ensnared in congestion on surface roads the same as cars, trucks and bicycles. Fixed guideway transportation sometimes shrinks road space for cars.

This map traces the route of a tunnel that will replace Seattle's crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. The expensive project has been fraught with drilling complications.

This map traces the route of a tunnel that will replace Seattle's crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. The expensive project has been fraught with drilling complications.

Many urban areas don’t have a lot of room – or political appetite – to expand roadways. That has caused some cities to consider other options. Seattle is replacing the aging, unsightly Alaskan Way Viaduct with a massive and expensive underground tunnel. If not for the expense – and complications of drilling long tunnels, Portland might consider ditching the Marquam Bridge and putting I-5 underground as it goes through downtown Portland.

Another line of thinking is to use the airspace above roadways. Chinese engineers have developed a modern-looking straddle bus that can roll down a roadway overtop cars without adding to congestion or taking up a lane of traffic. The bus, which resembles a moving bridge, runs on rails built flush with the road, not requiring sequestered road space. Unlike subways that require a lot of digging, the only infrastructure needed for the straddle bus are elevated stations.

A prototype of the Chinese straddle bus, which is electric powered, reaches speeds up to 40 mph and carries as many as 1,400 passengers, will be tested this summer after the idea has languished since it was first conceived as far back as 1969. 

With tempers flaring and commute times expanding, there has never been a better time to think differently about how we get around.

Polling Misses Mark in Oregon Presidential Primary

A major public opinion poll conducted before the Oregon primary showed Hillary Clinton outpacing Bernie Sanders by double digits. Actual election results were almost the exact opposite.

A major public opinion poll conducted before the Oregon primary showed Hillary Clinton outpacing Bernie Sanders by double digits. Actual election results were almost the exact opposite.

A well publicized public opinion poll conducted between May 6 and 9 showed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton leading challenger Bernie Sanders in the Oregon primary by a 48 to 33 percent margin. Actual election results were almost the opposite, with Sanders carving out a double-digit victory.

How could a poll be so out of whack? One frequent reason is failure to account for voter turnout. However, the Clinton-Sanders poll took higher-than-average turnout into account, which showed Clinton’s lead narrowing to 45 to 38 percent. Still wrong, by a wide margin.

The same poll, which interviewed 901 likely Oregon voters, under-predicted Donald Trump’s vote count. He received 45 percent of the GOP presidential vote in the poll, but almost 65 percent of the actual vote. Another big miss.

Telephone surveys have become somewhat less reliable if they don’t include a percentage of cell phone users, which ensures that younger and minority voices are heard. While that sampling flaw might understate the vote in Portland or college towns like Eugene, it doesn’t explain Sanders’ strong showing in rural Wallowa and Lake counties or his dominance in all but one of Oregon’s 36 counties.

Candidates usually do better in states where they campaign in person. Sanders appeared in Oregon four times before the primary. Clinton made no appearances, but did send Bill Clinton to campaign. That’s a hard factor to capture in a public opinion poll, but it is a question worth asking to see if being here breaks someone’s vote one way or another. 

The Los Angeles Times carried a story over the weekend about the intense Democratic push in Oregon to register new voters as Democrats before the April 26 deadline. Many of the new voters were automatically registered as a result of Oregon’s Motor Voter law, but not affiliated with any political party. Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins reported a larger than normal registration switch, which favored Democrats. These factors would have been hard to track in a poll, but they may have been worth asking about to gauge the velocity of a late shift toward Sanders, who predicted he would win if the turnout was large. He obviously knew what he was talking about. 

Polling is a tough business, and it is getting tougher. Fewer people are willing to be interviewed by phone, which means pollsters need to make more calls to achieve a representative sample, which is more costly. Respondent reticence means polls have to take less time and include fewer questions, sometimes the questions that would be useful in improving confidence in poll findings.

While Sanders’ success in Oregon is not a huge surprise, it may be more telling than at first glance. His victory points out the foibles of one-off polls and the political benefits of an intensive ground game. 

More significantly, the results in Oregon show Sanders’ message packs some punch, and not just where you would expect.