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Use metaphors as potent tools for messaging

By Kim Harrison

Author and Principal of

We are all familiar with the multitude of metaphors used in business communication. For example: “We need to steer a straight course from here” or “We are facing stormy seas” or recently a certain someone undertook to “drain the swamp” of Washington DC.

Linguistic analysis discussed by Robert Cialdini in his new book Pre-suasion, backs the view that the main function of language is not to express or describe, but to influence – largely by associating with a prior set of mental associations. In this case, the influence can be through metaphors.

A metaphor is the way we consider one mental domain in terms of another – to make concepts more vivid. Effective leaders, especially politicians, are good at leading debate by encapsulating concepts in memorable metaphors that people relate to. Such metaphors are highly desirable to use in professional communication.

Beast or virus

For instance, a politician could refer to a surge in crime as a wild beast rampaging through the city that must be stopped.

On the other hand, the politician could refer to a surge in crime as a spreading virus infecting the city that must be stopped. Bringing a virus under control means removing the unhealthy conditions that allow it to breed and spread.

In this study, online readers were given either of two sample news items identical except for one word. The crime wave was referred to either as a “beast” or a “virus.”

Later the participants were asked to indicate their preferred solutions. Readers who initially read the item that portrayed crime as a beast recommended ‘catch-and-cage,’ ie arrest and imprison, solutions, while the other readers recommended removing unhealthy conditions.

The research allowed for other variables, but still found a 22% difference due to the change of a single word, a metaphor.

In my home town, the law and justice authorities have changed the metaphor they use for an unprovoked punch by a person on someone else. They used to call these ‘a king hit,’ but now to call them a ‘coward’s punch’ to create a different conceptualization.

Another example is the secret of the greatest life insurance salesman in the United States, who put a wonderful metaphor to work. He didn’t say people died; he said “they walked out of life,” a much softer image. When talking with a potential client, he would say, “When you walk out, your insurance money walks in.” Masterful. Customers signed up in droves.

Using metaphors to frame issues

Examples of common metaphors used in messaging:

Making progress is forward movement
We are moving ahead.
Let’s forge ahead.
We’ve enjoyed safe passage on this.
Amount of progress is distance moved
We’ve come a long way.
We’ve covered lots of ground.
We’ve made it this far.
We are delivering the goods.
Success is reaching the end of the path
We’ve reached the end.
We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The end is in sight.
Safe harbour is in sight.
Lack of purpose is a lack of direction
They are just floating around.
They are drifting aimlessly.
We’re all at sea on this.
We will go with the flow.
We are just keeping our heads above water.
You will be up the creek without a paddle.
We are all in the same boat, etc.

A workplace example: Instead of saying “We are running behind on this project, which is over budget,” you can state, “Time is money, and therefore we need to make up for lost time on this project.”

The idea: when you are writing text, and certainly in writing a speech, pause to think of a strong metaphor could be used as a key theme – not just a standard or clichéd metaphor, but one that is more original and apt. It will make your message more potent.

Further reading
Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (2003).
Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff, G. (2004)
Words that Work. Luntz, F. (2007).