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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On Metaphorically Speaking

New York Times columnist David Brooks reminds us that the proper use of metaphors is critical to human understanding. "[B]eing aware of metaphors reminds you of the central role that poetic skills play in our thought. If much of our thinking is shaped and driven by metaphor, then the skilled thinker will be able to recognize patterns, blend patterns, apprehend the relationships and pursue unexpected likenesses." http://nyti.ms/dXP0o6.

However, he also warns against being too metaphor-happy. Mixed metaphors are not only bad diction, he writes, they are also perceived as deceptive because they give the impression there is a lack of verifiable data to support them: "To be aware of the central role metaphors play is to be aware of how imprecise our most important thinking is. It's to be aware of the constant need to question metaphors with data — to separate the living from the dead ones, and the authentic metaphors that seek to illuminate the world from the tinny advertising and political metaphors that seek to manipulate it."

I guess Brooks' message to the messenger is to not ride too high on one's horse when being metaphorical; it's too easy to fall between two chairs. All kidding aside, it's a reminder to professional communicators that the liberal use of trite metaphors, analogies and stories for their own sake can be irrelevant and too clever by half. Good messaging makes sense to an audience by linking believable and relevant illustrations to strong data.

One of CommCore's cardinal rules about messaging is to combine "visual" data – pertinent stories, analogies, metaphors and 3rd party validations that illustrate a technical point so that it effectively resonates or "sticks" with your target audience. Like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's "60 Minutes" analogy in 2009 of the bank bailout to a house catching fire because you smoked in bed. If the house burns down, it's your problem Bernanke said. But if the embers spread and the neighborhood burns down, it's everybody's problem. First the fire needs to be put out, then we need to figure out the cause of the fire. Finally we may need to change the fire code.

With Brooks' caveat in mind, when you pick a metaphor make sure it's on point and also know when you need to say: "It's just a metaphor."

What has your experience been with stories, metaphors and analogies in corporate or technical communications?

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