Confused? Grab a great metaphor

I blogged recently about the power of compelling metaphor to act directly on our emotional centres – to tug at our heartstrings and twist at our guts.

I quoted Martin Luther King, a master of the art, as he borrowed from Shakespeare and others in an inspiring passage:

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

And I pointed out that the fact metaphors act directly on the emotions, often bypassing the rational mind, is one of the reasons that great persuaders love them.

But there’s another important reason that persuaders frequently use metaphors: they are great ways to explain complex ideas.

For example, one of my most popular blog posts (and the one that gave me my nickname, The Elephant Whisperer) introduced a metaphor from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt likens the mind to a rider on an elephant. The rider is the conscious part of the mind – the small fraction of our being that we are aware of – and the elephant is everything else.

Based on that metaphor, I was able to state quite precisely what X-Ray Listening was, what it did, and several ways in which it might be able to help you – a sharp and shiny “elevator pitch” for my business (as it was then).

I’ve recently come across an example which is perhaps even more useful, particularly in the context of influence and persuasion. My colleague Linda Schneider likens the sales process to an hourglass. She says:

While the sand is at the top of the hourglass, be a consultant. Spend enough time exploring their situation so that they’ve fully developed the problem and told you how and why the problem exists. Understand the flow of the conversation so you can ask questions that help them think about their problem from your expert perspective. Notice how this process dissolves concerns and objections. Don’t leap on opportunities to present a solution. Mentally catalog such opportunities and set them aside for now.
When the time is right, the sand has dropped to the bottom of the hourglass, and the prospect will discover that he/she wants to hear your solution. You can now present a solution that exactly fits his/her needs (if you have one), and you will have developed a lasting relationship that you can nurture for future business.”

Based on that metaphor I can say things like: “My home-study courses give you specific techniques to use when the sand is at the top of the hourglass… which will put you in the perfect position to take best advantage of that precious moment when the conversation tips.”

It’s quick and it’s simple. I don’t need complex technical descriptions, and you don’t need to have read all the books on sales models to understand me.

2 Comments

  • Dave Sharman

    20/01/2011

    This is a wonderful metaphor, which is intriguing and ultimately very clear. It stimulates my curiosity in an attractive way; but the punch line is so well formed too!

  • Dave Richardson

    21/01/2011

    The Martin Luther King quote invokes fabulous imagery.
    Metaphors aren’t just a decorative extra to use as technique on top of plain language, they are deeply rooted in the way our brains think.

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