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.
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.
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.
Here are some more examples showing how you can easily use metaphors in your work:
Making progress is forward movement
Amount of progress is distance moved
Success is reaching the end of the path
Lack of purpose is a lack of direction
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.
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 :)] :
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.
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
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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