How to come up with a metaphor

If you’ve done much reading about the way our minds work, you’re probably aware of the power of metaphor to influence and persuade.

You’ll know that great teachers, statesmen, artists and religious leaders use metaphors to capture our hearts, while great salesmen, marketers and gizmo-makers use them as a fast-track to our wallets. That’s because metaphor is the native language of the unconscious mind.

It’s increasingly well-known that a great metaphor will bring a presentation or an article to life. Perhaps, like me, you regularly read the question: “Has anyone got a great metaphor for…?” from people ranging from schoolkids to speechwriters.

What’s less well known is that our ordinary language is awash with metaphors – something like six per minute, depending what you include. Again, that’s because metaphor is the native language of the unconscious mind: the metaphors we use in our thinking spill out in our words. But it takes practice – and perhaps training – to notice these spontaneous metaphors as they emerge.

So, here’s a simple technique to help someone to come up with a metaphor for an abstract concept, such as “user interface”. Use this whenever someone asks you to help them come up with a metaphor, whenever you want to add emotional power to the words a person is using, e.g. to help them create an impactful presentation, or when you want to get an insight into how they are thinking about an idea.

1. When an abstract concept is mentioned, ask: “What kind of <concept> is that?” and perhaps: “Is there anything else about <concept>?”

2. The person will volunteer some features of the concept.

3. Now ask: “And that’s <feature> and <feature>… like… what?” The person is likely to volunteer a metaphor. If not, repeat.

Remember to ask the last question very slowly. And remember not to ask: “That’s <concept> like what?”

For example, imagine the person mentioned a “user interface”. You would ask: “What kind of user interface is that?” and they might answer: “It’s simple, colourful and easy to understand.”

Your next question would be: “And that’s simple, colourful and easy to understand… like… what?” and they might answer: “Like a children’s picture book.”

You can then go on to find out more about the kind of picture book they have in mind. I don’t know about you, but I’m imagining Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat declaring: “Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.” Can someone build me a user interface like that?

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