How To Use Metaphor To Speed Up Communication

How can you use metaphor to speed up communication? It can be as simple as asking the Clean Language question, “… and that’s like… what?”

I’m so immersed in working with metaphor that I sometimes forget how powerful it can be. Iain McGilchrist calls it “the money of thought,” Stephen Pinker “the stuff of thought,” I tend to use “the atom of thought.” Either way, metaphor is so fundamental to the way we think and communicate that it’s apparently impossible to do either without it.

But usually, metaphor is hidden. We rarely notice the six metaphors a minute we use in ordinary English.

It’s when you make it explicit you unleash it’s phenomenal power to speed up communication, and help people understand each other on a deeper level.

I had two lovely examples of that this week.

1. A Buzzing Conference

First, I was giving the closing keynote at a teccie conference in London, Lean Kanban Days 2017, introducing a bunch of Agile/Lean/Kanban enthusiasts to Clean Language. I asked the group of 120 or so, “For you, this conference has been like… what?”

The conference’s Kudos Board already offered some metaphors to give people the idea. Was their conference like a treasure chest, or a journey, or something completely different?

Then I invited them to ask each other a few Clean Language questions about their answers… before drawing their metaphors. They emerged full of vivid ways to describe (and to tweet about!) the experience they’d had.

What happened next? Check out David Waldorf’s buzzing beehive in the picture on this page, or search for the trending hashtag #LLKD17 for more.

2. A Modular Forum

I’m doing some voluntary work for the RSA, setting up an online Fellows’ Forum. It’s important that it’s “by Fellows, for Fellows”, and that the Fellows who want to be involved organise themselves to make it happen. Which means, inevitably, disagreements about how we make it happen.

In frustration with a week of seemingly-circular text discussions, I asked everyone, “When this Forum is just as you would like, it will be like… what?” and invited them to post a picture.

Very quickly, we had four different visions, expressed in a way we could grasp quickly – a community pub, a cluster of beehives (curiously), a bridge and TEDxSydney. Our differences – and similarities – became obvious. New, more constructive conversations emerged.

Now, we’re working towards a Forum that’s more like a container mall. I’d never have expected that!

  • Want to get your group started with metaphor? Here’s how

2 thoughts on “How To Use Metaphor To Speed Up Communication”

  1. Thank you, Judy, for inspiring ideas and creating new possibilities at IBM by sharing on today’s IBM Coaching Community of Practice call. I learned so much and have already tried out the question “When you are working at your best, you are like…what?” Brilliant insights for both me and the person answering! I’m looking forward to trying it in a workshop that’s about creating a more diverse, inclusive and engaged community!

  2. Thanks for the update Vicki! I want to know what happens next – please do share!

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