Metaphors for Persuasion

Metaphors are one of those things: the more you learn about them the more they reveal themselves as a secret, powerful influence on the way we as individuals and as a society think.

Violent Crime as a Public Health Issue

In the last couple of weeks, the idea of treating violent crime as a ‘public health’ issue has garnered a few headlines.

Metaphors for Persuasion

Here is the FT reporting on an initiative being announced by Sajid Javid. This announcement followed a similar one from the mayor of London Sadiq Khan last month.

It is not a new idea but the government is launching a consultation on using it as a country-wide approach to serious violence.

It’s a system pioneered originally by a US epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who worked in the 1980s on the spread of cholera, TB and HIV in West Africa. By plotting new outbreaks on a map, he and his team knew where to intervene to stop an isolated case becoming a new hot spot.

Gary Slutkin, a Professor of Epidemiology and Founder and CEO of Cure Violence.

Slutkin then returned to his native Chicago where the murder rate was rising and he used the same technique to tackle violence. Plotting murders and gun crime on a map allowed specially trained teams to intervene and ensure one potential ‘trigger’ event was not allowed to spark a whole range of follow up violence and murder. The full details are explained in this Ted Talk.

The public health approach to violence has since been piloted in Glasgow by something called the Violence Reduction Unit and Strathclyde became the first police force in the world to formally adopt a public health model.

From Metaphor to Policy

In this case, the comparison between epidemiology and violence has developed from metaphor to policy. But to me what is interesting is that by thinking of one thing (violence) as another (outbreak of disease) hundreds if not thousands of people have been able to think differently about a solution to a problem.

Using a metaphor changed the way people thought. And actually, this happens, for good and bad, every day.

War Metaphors for Tackling Cancer

In 2012 the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an article from an oncologist entitled ‘Stop using military metaphors for disease’. Natasha Wiggins was not the first to suggest that military metaphors can unhelpfully influence a patient.

A decade earlier the journalist John Diamond who subsequently died of Cancer wrote:

“I despise the set of warlike metaphors that so many apply to cancer. My antipathy has nothing to do with pacifism and everything to do with a hatred for the sort of morality which says that only those who fight hard against their cancer survive it or deserve to survive it – the corollary being that those who lose the fight deserved to do so.”

Others have suggested that a fighting attitude to cancer is not always conducive to recovery and not helpful in facing terminal cancer were ‘losing the battle’ is internalised as a failure.

Do War Metaphors Serve Politics

And then there is politics: In this Guardian piece from 2015, Margaret Simons argues the use of war metaphors for describing politics helps to alienate voters. She writes:

“Our use of battleground metaphors obscures the fact that politics is largely about working out how to live together – how to build wealth, and how to share it. How to balance freedom and responsibility for others. It is about ideas, communication, persuasion and process – and nothing to do with war. We have wars when politics fails.”

The Power of Metaphor

I became aware of metaphors as a media trainer and then whilst facilitating messaging sessions. Helping organisations with messages is now almost half my work.

Metaphors are hugely useful for crafting a quote that journalists will write. Simply describing something as a ‘new dawn’, a ‘game changer’ or naming a trend as a ‘turning tide’ or dubbing an economic outcome as a ‘deal dividend’ will almost always influence journalists. What has become clearer to me is it will also influence people’s reality.

The more you use this amazing tool the more you realise you are not just describing something in a way the helps people understand reality: you are distorting or creating a new reality.

And that is why they are so good at persuasion and also why they have to be used with consideration and care. To be old fashioned I would say – they have to be used ethically. We should all pay a lot more attention to metaphor.

Lindsay Williams

About Lindsay Williams

Prior to founding her communications training agency, The Media Coach, Lindsay Williams worked as a journalist from 1983. She specialised in financial and business journalism since 1991. After thirteen years in the BBC with local radio, regional television, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, she moved to Reuters Financial Television as Deputy Programme Editor. Working freelance from 1998, she was contracted in a variety of roles including as an executive producer for Bloomberg television delivering half hour profiles of Chief Executives, as a producer with Sky Business Unit and at CNBC. She has had articles published in Sunday Business, The Business, The Times and in specialist magazines such as Companies & Finance and Impact. For the majority of her journalism career she specialised in reporting business and finance. Lindsay Williams hosts a range of bespoke communication skills courses for The Media Coach which include Media Training, Presentation Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building.

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  1. Robert says:

    Fascinating blog; thanks. A lot of people turn their noses up at metaphors, and some of them are misleading or have become cliched. But they are both memorable and useful. Hell, even physicists use them: electrons aren’t really waves or particles, but it’s helpful to switch between these metaphors in specific circumstances.

    While many share John Diamond’s distaste for “fighting/battling” cancer, there is currently interest in modelling cancer treatment as a metaphorical Darwinian struggle for survival between chemo and different types of cancer cells.

    The biggest problem I have with metaphors is thinking them up !

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