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Use metaphors in business messaging as potent tools

01 Jun, 2020 Writing and layout

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 summarizing concepts in memorable metaphors that people relate to. Such metaphors are highly desirable to use in professional communication. Here’s how you can use metaphors in business messaging as potent tools.

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.

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

Legendary US journalist, political commentator and former White House Press Secretary, Bill Moyers (right), said in his email newsletter of 12 July 2020 that:

Joseph Campbell once told me: “If you want to change the world, change the metaphors.” That is, help people understand what’s new and strange by describing it as comparable to what they already know. Examples are: “A mighty fortress is our God.” “The city is a jungle.” “Chaos is a friend of mine.” “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”

These comments are a wonderful reminder of the power of metaphors, and how easy they are to use in your messaging. From this you can see that metaphors in business messaging can be a potent tool.

Examples of common metaphors used in business messaging

Here are some more examples showing how you can easily use metaphors in your work:

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 harbor 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.

Fluids

  • 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.

Metaphors in business messaging as potent tools

Various metaphors are used in considering an organizational environment, and the organization itself. In a 2011 article, “Types of Metaphors of Organisation,” in the Journal of Intercultural Management, Lukasz Sulowski, discusses findings from academic J.J. Clancy, who identified six main metaphors used in business: journey, game, war, machine, organism and society.

Also, Gareth Morgan discusses 8 metaphors in his book, Images of Organization and in its updated editions, incorporating a group or cluster of organizational theories. His 8 metaphors are discussed in the 2016 article, “Beyond Morgan’s eight metaphors: Adding to and developing organization theory,” in the Human Relations journal. This article by academics Ortenblad, Putnam & Trehan doesn’t actually discuss new, specific metaphors, but provides this summary, below, which could be useful for you to consider. Morgan’s metaphors as described in the article, are [Some repetition in this lot :)] :

  1. Organizations as machines – the machine metaphor. Views of organizations that emphasize closed systems, efficiency and mechanical features of organizations.
  2. Organizations as organisms – the organism metaphor. Views of organizations as open systems that focus on human relations.
  3. Organizations as brains – the brain metaphor. This focuses on the cognitive features of organizations, and encompasses learning and cybernetics.
  4. Organizations as cultures – the culture metaphor. Emphasizes symbolic and informal aspects of organizations as well as the creation of shared meaning among participants.
  5. Organizations as political systems – the political system metaphor. This encompasses stakeholder theories, diversity of interests, and conflict and power in organizations.
  6. Organizations as psychic prisons – the psychic prison metaphor. This examines the psyche, the unconscious, and ways that organizations entrap their members.
  7. Organization as flux and transformation – the flux and transformation metaphor. This emphasizes processes, self-reference, and unpredictability through embracing itself as a system capable of producing and maintaining itself by creating its own parts (autopoiesis), chaos and complexity in organizations. .
  8. Organizations as instruments of domination – the instrument of domination metaphor. This highlights exploitation, control, and unequal distribution of power performed in and by organizations.

In a 2003 Harvard Business Review article, Tihamér von Ghyczy observes also that:

…we must be wary of declaring evolution—or any metaphor—a universal metaphor for business. We must always be ready to work with alternative metaphors in response to the maddening particulars of a business situation. Moreover, because language is social and metaphors are part of language, it should be no surprise that our best metaphorical thinking is done in the company of others.

Further reading

You can read more about using metaphors in frames in my article, “Framing creates stronger messages.”

Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (2003).

Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff, G. (2004)

Image: visual metaphor of pushing uphill against a weighty problem

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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