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metaphors

A Minute With The Media Coach: Metaphors

As we continue our summer specials, instead of bringing you our usual blog this week we bring you number five in our series ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’.  This week fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss the benefit of finding a good metaphor when talking to the media.

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.

Metaphor

Jeremy Hunt Sets Tongues Wagging with USSR Metaphor

When is a metaphor ‘inappropriate’?  This is my question of the week.

One speech this weekend seemed to cause more noise and bluster than any other, and that was from the new Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. In what looked like a calm and reasoned performance, he used a metaphor of the USSR and a prison to make his point that the European negotiators should be more flexible in drawing up the Brexit deal.

Jeremy Hunt Sets Tongues Wagging

Here is the relevant script:

“At the moment you, European friends, seem to think the way to keep the club together is to punish a member who leaves, not just with economic disruption, but even by breaking up the United Kingdom with a border down the Irish Sea…

“The EU was set up to protect freedom – it was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving. The lesson from history is clear – if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out of it won’t diminish, it will grow, and we won’t be the only prisoner that wants to escape…”

Choice of Metaphor Widely Criticised

There is a long list of outraged comment …

The Independent:  Everything that was wrong about Jeremy Hunt comparing the EU to the Soviet Union.

The BBC: EU diplomats say Hunt’s Soviet comparison ‘insulting’.

Bloomberg: Jeremy Hunt’s Soviet-EU Comparison Is Absurd.

The Guardian: Jeremy Hunt rebuked by EU after Soviet prison comparison.

HuffPost: Jeremy Hunt ‘Misjudged’ Brexiteer Tories With ‘Toe Curling’ EU/USSR Comparison

The Telegraph: Brussels suggests Jeremy Hunt should read a history book after he compares EU to the Soviet Union.

The New European: ‘Shocking failure of judgement’ – Hunt criticised for Soviet Union jibe

Firstly, I want to note – my thoughts on this are not a political comment at all.  I am personally a ‘Remainer’, I like Europeans and believe the EU is more good than bad.  I like to think I have respect for people that see things differently. I comment in this blog on things in the news that I think are interesting from a communications point of view.

Metaphors are Very Useful in External Comms

Secondly, I am a great fan of metaphors because they help communicate meaning. However, in public life, they have to be chosen carefully and they can easily cause offence. Anything to do with sexism, racism or Nazis – as I have mentioned before – is almost certain to offend someone. Sex metaphors can be tricky but also funny.  I still talk about the expert who claimed the Durban Climate Conference in 2011 was a “Viagra Shot for Carbon Markets” and got his comments on the front page of the FT.

So, to be clear, metaphors can be inappropriate. Boris Johnson often pushes the limit for me: and certainly, describing the Chequers plan as a ‘suicide vest’ is to my mind too rich although it clearly plugged into the Bodyguard zeitgeist.

I hear a lot of inappropriate metaphors when we are brainstorming during messaging sessions. They are good for a laugh but will quickly be dismissed by sensible people. They play the role of getting the creative juices flowing.

But for me, Jeremy Hunt did not overstep the mark. USSR and prisons are two separate metaphors in the same section of the speech. He made his point clearly and in a way that threw a new perspective on this very long-running, tedious argument (imagine trying to write a speech that says something new about Brexit).

In fact, I think a lot of the outrage is ‘fake outrage’. More to do with the political polarisation of the day than to do with anyone really being offended.

We should also ask the question: is this level of criticism a good or a bad thing? Most people would instinctively think it is bad. If everyone is condemning your turn of phrase you must have got it wrong, surely. However, as Johnson, Farage, Trump and others have shown us, being controversial gets headlines and seems to win votes. Sometimes, it pays to be outrageous but you need to be the boss or have an understanding boss – and a thick skin. Similarly, of course, it can pay to be outraged. Fake outrage also wins headlines.

Don’t Abandon Metaphors

So amid all the noise, I would like to make my point: don’t abandon metaphors. And also remember that colourful metaphors have an upside as well as a downside. It is all about using metaphors with judgement and above all planning them.

And as proof of the value of metaphor, I refer back to an interview my colleague Catherine Cross spotted, early last month, when Sir Ian Cheshire, the chairman of Debenhams was on BBC Radio 4 Today programme with the sole purpose of stopping rumours that the company was about to go into administration. He said:

The only analogy I have –  it is like having a bunch of nosy neighbours watching your house. 

“Somebody sees somebody in a suit going into a room. The second person concludes it’s a doctor, the third person concludes it’s an undertaker and by the time it gets to the end of the day you’ve got cause of death and everyone’s looking forward to the funeral,” 

This was widely reported and played its part in helping the share price recover, albeit only temporarily.

My guidelines:

  • Look to use metaphors, analogies and similes for external comms
  • Plan them
  • Keep them short
  • Risk assess them, ask others
  • Make sure you can say them aloud

If you would like help with message building either for the media or more general external communications we can run a short workshop for you and write up a message house at the end. You get to choose any metaphors!

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An irresistible metaphor

Media Coach trainers spend a great deal of time trying to persuade serious business people to use metaphor. Metaphor makes simple ideas more fun and more memorable – or to use our jargon ‘stickier’. A ‘sticky’ message is the best sort!

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Cameron’s ‘purred’ metaphor was catnip for journalists

David Cameron’s private and embarrassing use of the word ‘purred’ in the same sentence as ‘the Queen’ was very unfortunate but for us shows the huge power of a good metaphor. If he had just said ‘she was very happy’ in his aside to Micheal Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York, it might still have been reported, but the number of column inches and the amount of airtime would have been a great deal less.

This is the power of metaphor. Don’t use them by accident, use them consciously to supercharge your message.