CRYSTAL CLEAR: Metaphors Make Your Point

Making your point is always important, but ensuring your audience receives your point is doubly so.

Metaphors help you make your point in presentation.

Metaphor is a powerful presentation tool to make a point, providing a concept that informs how to think about what you are saying.

About ten years ago, we did a presentation test with a group of IT professionals. It could have been anyone, but these intellectual introverts were a fabulous experiment because they were smart, well-researched, and they were selected as a group because each participant had something important to say.

We wanted to know how well their points got across to an audience, so we played a little game called “What’s My Point?” Each person presented to the group, then the audience wrote down their takeaways and we read them out loud to the presenter.

“That wasn’t my point!”

“I did say that, but it wasn’t what I was hoping you’d walk away with.”

“Had I known you’d lock in on that insignificant message, I wouldn’t have said it at all!”

There were certainly success stories in that experiment, but a surprisingly high percentage of people did not leave the audience with what they thought they would.

How Metaphor Helps You Make Your Point 

Listening to these well-researched presenters, we noticed they communicated like Analytical people often do – precisely and accurately.

Now that’s not a bad thing. How could it be? But there was something they weren’t doing that can work wonders in increasing clarity: Using metaphor.

Note: Before I go farther, most of the examples here are technically simile, or analogy, not metaphor. When I tell audiences to use metaphor, they automatically come up with similes, metaphors, and analogies. When I say, “Use simile,” they get a confused look and ask what a simile is. This post uses Metaphor as the Kleenex of “figures of speech that help you understand one thing by relating it to something else.” Use any one you like, but this post lumps the three together and calls it metaphor.

When it works, metaphor clarifies a point in a visual, almost concrete way, which counterbalances the context-sensitive specifics that stories, arguments, research, and facts provide. Where data proves your point, metaphor conceptualizes it.

We once worked with a group of women trying to communicate the multifaceted offering of the Girl Scouts of America. Suddenly someone threw out a metaphor.

“We’re like a compass, pointing the way!”

What a great idea. The concept of “compass” describes the idea of guidance.

Then someone had a different idea, recognizing that the Girl Scouts do far more than “point at a direction.”

“We’re like a map!”

Another great idea. Maps plot a specific course where a compass merely points in a direction.

But someone else noticed that as a leadership group, they do more than just map out a course. They walk the walk with the girls.

“We’re like a guide!”

The very notion of getting a metaphor helped them recognize that they weren’t even sure what point they were trying to make. So they went back to their drawing board and thought about precisely what they were trying to say, and they realized that the point they needed to make was that they had tons of different ways to serve girls and promote leadership qualities in them, and every girl is unique. And then, someone nailed it:

“We’re like a Swiss Army knife!”

This was the perfect metaphor to make their point around their multifaceted program that provides a solution for each kind of challenge each girl faces. They were exactly like a Swiss Army knife.

Story and Metaphor – A Message System with a One-Two Punch!

About five years ago I realized that two things work together to make a point, and if you look, you’ll find both of them in the subtitle above.

  1. Story – This is specific, clear, and complete – the classic problem/solution/outcome structure that SagePresence is always talking about. Story is how a beginning, middle, and end combine to show a change from worse to better. If that doesn’t make a point what does?“Girls today have too many needs for one program to address. That’s why we offer a host of programs, so your girl gets a customized solution specifically for her.”
  2. Metaphor – This is broad, conceptual, and hopefully universal, drawing from something you anticipate most of your audience understanding instantly.“Think of us as a Swiss Army knife. Whatever the need, we have a specialized tool just right for the job!”

Practice

When you need a metaphor, you may or may not find one. But I’ve found that they come more easily the more you look for them. So I recommend using metaphors regularly in daily conversation.

Is something like a fence where two things get divided? Is a transition more like the turning leaves, or like the budding leaves in the spring? Is the act of trying to get through your emails more like a game of Tetris, or is it more like a river that keeps flowing by? It’s become like a fun little game to play, like a purposeful brainteaser.

The more you look for metaphors, the more quickly you find them. Since I started actively trying to find them, the right metaphor became less like a needle in a haystack as my brain became an automatic metaphor generator that helps me pair the specificity of message with a conceptual analogy to help me make my point.

Give it a week. See if you can start a new pattern of pairing your points with metaphors, and you’ll land more clearly to more people, more frequently!

Let us know how it goes.

But before you run off to start this practice, let us know what you think right now. What scenarios do you face where you are challenged to make a clear point? Do you already use metaphors? What has your experience been? Share your thoughts below!

2 Comments

  1. Derrick Pick on April 25, 2017 at 5:23 pm

    Wow – your posts are always very good, but this one hits a home run, and set off an explosion of creativity in my mind. Thanks for lighting up a few bulbs for me.

  2. Dean Hyers on April 27, 2017 at 7:13 am

    Glad to hit a homer, Derek, and nice use of metaphor in the response! In all seriousness, one of the most exciting things to hear is that some sort of “creative chain reaction” was triggered here for you. The filmmaker in me loves knowing that it had inspired creativity. That’s particularly meaningful.

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