Are Your Metaphors Out Of Date?

We live in a fast-moving world. Stuff’s changing rapidly. So, are your metaphors out-of-date?

This issue has come up for me a couple of times recently.

  • In a workshop at QCon London, my friend Richard Kasperowski introduced Mob Programming using a metaphor of a driver and a navigator. He added, “Imagine it’s the olden days, when you had a human navigator.”
  • In one of my online classes, we were talking about developing metaphors using Clean Language. I explained, “That’s developing like an old-fashioned photography lab, where you dipped the photo in a tray of liquid for a while and eventually, the picture emerged. The point is, you want to hold the person’s attention in one place for a while.”

In the 21st century, it’s probably time to stop using metaphors in training that have to be explained like that. Apart from anything else, it makes me feel ancient!

It ought to be easy to update these metaphors. Just use Clean Language! But in both these examples, it turns out to be tricky. The very concept that’s being described in metaphor feels a little tiny bit old-fashioned.

One person guiding another? Why would anyone do that when they had satnav?

Holding something still, and waiting? Does that even happen any more?

And of course, I’m the one that’s racking my brains here. I’m the age I am, and I can’t change that. Navigators and developing photos are part of my life experience.

What I probably need is a young person. Then I could ask them, “And when holding something still, and waiting, for you, that’s holding something still and waiting… like… what?”

Answers gratefully received! Please comment below.

11 thoughts on “Are Your Metaphors Out Of Date?”

  1. Donald Fortin

    While connecting to the high pressure geyser of neurosciences and developing a metaphor, It emerge that symbolic modeling is like “neuro-imaging with low technology tools”…

  2. Magicians hold attention while they reveal hidden birds.
    While we don’t have human navigators, we do look up answers to your questions on the web. And often, the first answer we find is confusing or inaccurate.

  3. The point is, you want to hold the person’s attention in one place for a while.

    with what type of holding it that, ? could be the hold which is moving, and in moving

    creates… discovery which is timeless

  4. That’s like being in an orchestra and holding your instrument still while counting out 37 measures, waiting for your entry.

  5. A good story is better shown than told…a good storyteller shows the story and not just tells the story.
    E.g…..Q: When you are functioning at your best then that’s like what?…don’t just tell me…show me with your body!
    An unembodied metaphor is like thinking about laughing without laughing….no fun!
    Full expression of meaning / metaphor requires physical expression otherwise it lacks vitality and kinetic expression.
    Cognitive revelations unexpressed physically remain immature expressions of one’s innate creative potential and amount to very little beyond mental fantasy…..Physicalised revelations of cognitive metaphor as they emerge become real life expressions of latent potential into actualised physical realities…..the stuff of Life!

  6. May be like an autostereogram? Not sure they are still around either… It’s sure valuable to consider updating our metaphors!

  7. Great ideas, thanks all! I fear the autostereogram (Magic Eye), which is closest to the meaning I’m looking for, probably does suffer from the same out-of-date effect. Patience has gone out of fashion!

  8. “The driver and the navigator” –> it is still like that when you are into sports (Rally racing), Colin McRae anybody?
    “picture developing in a lab” –> might be hiking through the fog, and getting closer to a tree (or some other landmark), as you get closer you start seeing more and more detail. But it takes you walking. And even when you start running, it’ll take a while until you are close enough.

  9. Stephen Grey

    References to the natural world are more or less timeless. An impassive mountain, a still lake with no wind, the deer or rabbit caught in the headlights, a river that flows past but stays in the same place …

    The military sometimes come up with metaphors, use to convey and entire setting in a phrase, and some of these find their way into popular culture: TV, film and books.

    I have noticed that Chinese officials speaking in English sometimes use interesting metaphors. I think it was a comment on the relationship between China and the USA last year that gave rise to a statement that although relations at an official level had frozen like a river in winter, trade between the two countries continued to flow freely beneath the ice.

  10. Great question Judy, and yes, interesting that certain ways of using our minds are going out of fashion. Here are a few thoughts thought:
    One person guiding another:
    – sports coach
    – tour guide
    – air traffic controller
    – pilot / co-pilot
    – writer / editor
    – conductor of orchestra
    Perhaps we could broaden this one by thinking in terms of when are multiple perspectives helpful in constructing something, e.g.
    – product owner / developer
    – user / developer
    – tester / programmer
    – goal keeper / defender
    – bowler / fielder
    – photographer / makeup artist
    Waiting for something to develop / holding attention for a while:
    – cookery e.g. waiting for the sauce to thicken
    – party e.g. playing music as the guests arrive, waiting for them to feel ready to dance
    – relationship e.g. talking and gradually getting to know
    – parenting e.g. waiting for the child to be ready to take their first steps
    – learning e.g learning a language – at first it makes no sense at all, but gradually it makes more and more sense
    – playing a (video) game – at first it’s all too much to take in, and the tasks seem impossible, but quickly you get into it and it all seems to make sense

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