It is difficult to over-rate the impact of metaphors on communication.
So often, in message building or media training sessions, I am faced with a complicated concept that the client needs to explain to a non-specialist audience. This happens equally often, whether the training is focussed on business, science or engineering.
The answer is always a metaphor. Finding the right metaphor takes time and a willingness to think ‘outside the box’. But many serious people think playing with language in this way is not real work and a bit beneath them. They are so wrong.
Find the right metaphor, your story will tell itself, and you will greatly increase the stickiness of what you say.
[Stickiness itself is a metaphor and used comprehensively by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Tipping Point. It was picked up and expanded by one of my favourite business books, Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.]
The current financial crisis is complex, esoteric and hard for normal people to get their heads around. In such a case metaphors are not just useful but essential to communicate understanding.
So from this week’s Economist magazine:
‘The designers of the good ship euro wanted to create the greatest liner of the age. But as everybody now knows, it was fit only for fair-weather sailing, with an anarchic crew and no lifeboat. Its rules of economic seamanship were rudimentary, and were broken anyway. When it struck a reef two years ago, the water flooded one compartment after another’.
In a detailed and considered piece by the economist Gavyn Davies over the weekend, the various possible routes for the break up of the euro are discussed.
‘Once investors start to look over this precipice in earnest, the resulting stampede out of all euro-denominated assets could become self-fulfilling.’
Michael Portillo was last week musing about the options facing the UK government:
Mr. Osborne has to weigh up whether our felicitous standing in the markets is a prize won at enormous cost that it would be folly to sacrifice, or whether lenders are pleading with him to borrow more and stoke recovery.
This week Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, pleaded for Germany to act to save the European Union from ‘a crisis of apocalyptic proportions’.
The OECD, on the release of figures showing much reduced forecasts for economic growth, called on European Leaders to provide ‘credible and large enough firepower’ to stop the sell-off in Eurozone bonds.
An unnamed Italian bank executive spoke about the political pressure he was facing not to sell Italian bonds. He is quoted in the Wall Street Journal: ‘we know that if we reduce our exposure we’ll be killed by the Italian Treasury’.
In the same article an unnamed ECB official explained that political pressure by saying ‘banks can’t take the oxygen from the economy’.
Do not shun metaphors: find the right one and it will do much of your work for you.