Influential Metaphors: Digging Into Roots And Foundations

Interesting experiment this week. In the process of crafting some promotional materials for a potential workshop, I’ve been digging into a couple of “underground” metaphors. I asked my social media network for help – and the results were fascinating.

As I’ll be telling a group at Aginext on Friday, when you want to persuade someone of something, you want to use their words, their metaphors, their jargon. That’s relatively straightforward in synchronous, one-on-one conversation.

It’s more challenging in one-to-many communications – such as promotional words for a workshop.

The trick is to know the words, metaphors and jargon your potential customers would use (especially about themselves), and match that as closely as possible. That’s why marketing works so much more smoothly when you’re addressing a very tight niche, rather than a large, mixed audience.

The workshop content is based on the idea in this post: essentially that the quality of your attention determines the level of your influence. We’ll be learning and practising the skills involved in paying attention and directing attention, and exploring how to share these with teams. The intended audience will be mainly people in team leader or team coach roles in IT: scrum masters, Agile coaches, plus managers at various levels.

The Experiment

So, I asked my social media network (Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter) to help me choose between two metaphors:

  • Roots Of Influence: Underground Skills For Agents Of Change
  • Foundations Of Influence: Building Skills For Agents Of Change

On Facebook, the vote was 34 to 17 for “Foundations”. On Twitter, the opposite – 8 to 4 in favour of “Roots”. Checking who voted for what, I can see that people close to my intended audience clearly favour “Foundations” overall.

The Comments

But then we get to the comments!


Pros: clean, practical, solid, structural, well planned, corporate, can be built on, support a structure, designed in advance, strong start and promise of a future

Cons: can sound trivial, implies “basics”


Cons: mystical, “not clean”, messy, twisted, hidden

Pros: organic, can grow and change, implies history, nurturing, literally a living thing, good for free spirits

Other: invisible and quiet, emotive


Both +/-, subversive, secret , close to “underhand”, sinister, something not known.

“The marketing approach of making things sound secret or subversive is the number one way of telling me that I’ve nothing to learn from whatever they’re trying to flog.”

“I like “Underground Skills for Agents of Change” as it sounds like I’d be learning something secret or subversive ;)”

“Underground creates the impression in me that I am going to learn secrets that not lots of people know, as well as the underlying principles of influence, not “just” skills. All this, creates the urge in me to WANT to learn this information.”

Where Next?

One thing that’s emerged from all of this, for me, is that “Roots”, and even more so when combined with “Underground”, is very Marmite. People love it or hate it.

In my experience, that means it’ll attract attention. It may also attract people who are willing to think beyond the obvious. But will it make it harder for them to sell to their bosses, who may be paying the bill or at least giving paid time off to attend? And have I got a thick enough skin to handle the inevitable flack?

“Foundations” is safe. Possibly too safe – boring, in fact. There’s a big difference between voting for it in a social media poll and spending time and money on it.

More testing is needed. And there’s another word I want to explore: “Convincing”…

Thanks to everyone who’s helped me with this so far. More comments most welcome!

6 thoughts on “Influential Metaphors: Digging Into Roots And Foundations”

  1. Stephen McCann

    I remain a fan of metaphor weaving, especially here, where the Foundations are NOT the basics, but the essential underpinning, and the roots are NOT hidden and in the mud and redolent of bullshit, but organs of nurture and ongoing growth and vitality.

    I wonder how the cross referencing between similar but different metaphors will go some way towards refining the likely reception towards the intended meaning…and knowing that always it will never be 100%

  2. Brian McKinney

    When I owned a farm,Judy, I learned to be quite comfortable with using and hearing organic metaphors—plowing, seeding, planting, root, branch, growth, flowering, bearing fruit, harvesting. It seems to me that many people do not experience that. They live in cities and have potted plants, or they live in suburbs and dread mowing the lawn. What they see around them is construction and perhaps the seasonal cycle of road repair. Organic metaphors may be more difficult to engage with.
    I suspect you might have done better with a top line of Digging for Treasure. I think the glitter (shiny is clean) of treasure would be a stronger focus for people than the dirtiness (not clean) of digging. Just a thought.

  3. What stuck with me from your actual workshop, and came up in conversations afterwards, was your “Ninja trick” metaphor, with reference to the FBI and waitresses increasing their tips by 70%!
    Did you use the foundations/roots metaphor at all? If so I’m afraid I don’t have any recollection of it!
    I’ll be interested to hear how you got from the thinking in this blog post to your eventual workshop – fascinating!

  4. Pingback: Connecting Beneath The Surface - Judy Rees

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