Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Tell it better: Is your metaphor working...or working against you?

I encourage use of metaphors as storytelling tools, and storytellers of all kinds would be wise to dig into Michael Erard's recent article, How to design a metaphor, before using this sturdy story tool again.

Metaphors, used well, are great persuasion tools, time-savers, image-makers. As Erard , who has worked as a metaphor designer, notes, "metaphors are meant to help people to understand the unfamiliar. They aren’t supposed to make someone remark: ‘That’s beautiful.’ They’re meant to make someone realise that they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing." Whether you're persuading someone to a cause, selling something, or expanding horizons, metaphors can get you to your goal in a compact, elegant way.

But that's only true if they actually work. Among the most-read posts on this blog is Etch-a-Sketch tests for your next analogy, so named after Mitt Romney's campaign wielded that vivid analogy without thinking through the consequences. (Analogy, of course, is metaphor with the architecture showing.) And in this article, Erard walks us through user tests of metaphors, something you should try before choosing one for your storytelling, whether you're crafting a TED talk, a blog post, or a marketing pitch.

Erard describes user tests with a metaphor using dandelions or orchids to describe children's resiliency. It had taken hold in the scientific world, and with journalists. But--in a reminder to both researchers and reporters that you are not your audience--in testing, public audiences reacted differently:
We found that people knew what orchids and dandelions were (not always something you can count on). Also, the comparison appeared to help them understand why certain children do well and others don’t. Yet there was a problem: people valued the orchid and looked down on the dandelion....their child was not common but special and rare. When people won’t use a term to describe their own kids, that’s a giveaway that the metaphor won’t work.
Lovely as the concept of the orchid and the dandelion might be, that metaphor was working against the storyteller. Here's Erard's description of what happens when a metaphor about skills clicked with the audience:
When my colleagues and I tested a set of candidate metaphors on the streets, asking random strangers what skills are, the respondents mumbled in their usual ways. Then we gave them a metaphor in which skills are like ropes, woven out of many components braided together, and asked them more questions. It’s not that they became silver-tongued, exactly, but the fumbling abated. They began to talk about the parts of skills, how they have to be combined, and so on. It’s as if this new idea, which we gave to them, had taken them by the hand. Now they were walking down the street together, and the metaphor was showing them things. That’s how we knew that what we were doing with metaphors was working.
Does your new idea take your audience members by the hand, show them things, and give them words to describe new thoughts? Then you may have a working metaphor on your hands. It's worth taking the time to test more than one metaphor until you find the right fit.

For a yet deeper dive into metaphors, smart storytellers also will read I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World, by James Geary. You'll learn about metaphors in a thorough-going way in this book, and have plenty to test.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Paul Hudson)

Storytelling's the big buzz word in communications and marketing. But we've forgotten how this ancient art works. This "Tell it better" series hopes to revive and hone your storytelling skills for any format, from public speaking in the style of TED to social media. Want a storytelling workshop? Email me at eloquentwoman AT gmail DOT com

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