Communication Skills Blog

I have a friend whose desk is littered with reports, sticky notes, scraps of paper, pens, business cards, quickstart guides, half-eaten rolls of Lifesavers, and thumb drives. The other day, I got a look at his computer desktop. It looked like he had replicated his real desktop on his computer screen: documents, files, folders, videos, photos, and shortcuts to applications littered the monitor screen as if they had been thrown there. I’m sure this “system” is effective for him or he would change it. But the sight of the mess on his computer screen made me wonder how he would use that space if it had been called “lobby” or “front yard” instead of “desktop.”

That screen, of course, is not a real desktop. “Desktop” is a metaphor, and a good one, because my friend treats it just like he treats his real desk. At Communispond, we teach effective communication for presentations, sales, customer service, and teamwork. So we think about metaphor a lot.

Metaphors are effective communication because analogy – a process of finding the properties of a thing by comparing it to another thing – is fundamental to thought. If you believe that we can understand something only when it relates to something else we already understand, then you believe that analogy is thought. This position was persuasively argued by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in 2001, when he suggested “every concept we have is essentially nothing but a tightly packaged bundle of analogies… all we do when we think is to move fluidly from concept to concept — in other words, to leap from one analogy-bundle to another.

When you give someone information in the form of a metaphor, you preprocess it for them. They don’t have to invest the mental effort of finding an analogy in their inventory. When you use a metaphor, then, you are coming about as close as you can to placing a thought directly into the mind(s) of your audience. Talk about effective communication!

Metaphors are thus powerful methods of persuasion, because they allow you to convey not just the information, but how your audience should think about that information. As the superheroes say, with great power comes great responsibility. This month brought news of the special power of metaphor. Scientific American reported on a study in which a group of subjects read a passage that said “crime is a beast.” Another group read a passage that said “crime is a virus.” In subsequent surveys, those who had read the beast passage were more likely to prescribe punishment as a means to control crime, while those who read the virus passage were more likely to prescribe treatment. Thus a good metaphor goes beyond effective communication to something approaching thought control. Pick your metaphors carefully. Use them responsibly.

In a business meeting once, I heard an executive say, “She doesn’t have the bandwidth in that organization for anybody to connect the dots.” Seeing it here now, it’s a hilariously ham-handed use of metaphor. But in the context of that meeting, everyone at the conference table understood it immediately. If he’d said, “She doesn’t have staff with the talent or perspective to comprehend how this initiative will play out,” it wouldn’t have had the same impact, and it would probably have taken us all longer to process what he said. When you’re thinking about how to achieve effective communication, remember this. Even a bad metaphor has an advantage over an abstraction.


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