The power of metaphor

By February 25, 2011Presentation Skills

I spend a lot of time in training sessions asking people “what’s it like?”.

Some of my clients enjoy forcing me to wade through the mud of their work processes, using technical language with which they are comfortable. I challenge them to relate these processes to something I can see and feel, so they can do the same for their clients. Occasionally they will challenge me back – “my clients don’t care about metaphors, they want me to get to the point”.

So here’s a big point. Metaphors are powerful – stronger even than political allegiance, according to studies by Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky reported on Ed Yong’s fabulous blog.

Students read two near-identical reports on crime. The only difference was the metaphor. One described crime as “a wild beast preying on the city”, “lurking in neighbourhoods”, while the second saw it as “a virus plaguing the city”, “infecting neighbourhoods”. Identical arguments and statistics appeared in both articles.

‘Beast’ readers chose enforcement/punishment over social reforms as the solution by 75% to 25%. The split for ‘virus’ readers was 56% to 44%. We hate beasts, we treat viruses. The choice of metaphor influenced the policy solution suggested by respondents.

And here’s the kicker. Yong says “the metaphors only work if they frame the rest of the text. If the critical sentence came at the end of the report, it didn’t have any effect.”

So the point of influence isn’t logic tied to a statistic. We think it is. We pride ourselves on being sharp, evidence-driven, impervious to advertising, and so forth. Only 3% of respondents to Thibodeau and Boroditsky’s survey thought they had been convinced by the metaphors.  Yet many, many more of them were.

The main point of influence was the up-front metaphor. How good are you at creating and using them?

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