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Business Communicators: Got Metaphor?

How do you effectively communicate -- sell -- your ideas in the marketplace? Anne Miller, a speaker, author and corporate trainer, answers this way: Think in metaphors. Metaphors? Review a speech by Ronald Reagan, Jack Welch or Steve Jobs -- or other legendary communicators -- and you'll read prose laced with imagery and analogies that drive their points home. As the author of Metaphorically Selling, Anne teaches businesspeople to put metaphors to work in their own communication. We spoke to her about her approach:

VT: Why are metaphors so important for business communication?

Anne: People need to understand that when they're talking to somebody, they're really talking to two people. They're talking to the left brain and to the right brain. The left brain processes language; right brain processes images. They work together. For example, if I tell you I met a terrific guy and he was just like George Jordan, I could wax eloquent, I could be passionate, I get so excited about George Jordan -- but you wouldn't have a clue about what I'm talking about. Your left brain hears the words, pretty much surmises it's a man, but just can't relate. But what if I said this guy was just like Michael Jordan? Well instantly, you'd know what I'm talking about because the right brain can see him, have an association with him and an emotional attachment to him that's positive.

People who simply give, give, give more information, more charts and more facts when they communicate don't understand that they're only doing half a job. If you really want to get into someone's head, you have to talk to the right brain as well. And you do that through imagery, pictures, visuals, stories -- and metaphors. They all play the same role.

VT: How do business writers develop their ability to create metaphors?

Anne: There are metaphors in literature, imaginative metaphors like, "My love is like a red, red rose," which are nice if you can come up with them. But most businesspeople can't. In business, though, you don't have to think of something that poetic. The stuff of the everyday works fine. We use metaphors all the time. We say it's "cold as ice," "hot as hell," "like a train wreck waiting to happen," right?

VT: Right.

Anne: The media, when talking about Hillary and Obama, has recently been saying that Hillary appeals to the "lunch bucket crowd" while Obama appeals to the "wine and pate crowd." Those are metaphors, of course. We all use them all the time in conversation. What people don't realize is that they should be using them strategically when they are communicating in business, too. You just have to think to yourself when you're writing, "what is this like?" -- and start making connections. Keep in mind that these connections must be of something known in the world of the person you're talking to. So when I said "he was just like George Jordan," you didn't have a clue because you had no experience of George Jordan. Once I said "like Michael Jordan," then you got it.

VT: What are the different uses of metaphors in business writing?

Anne: One of the key uses is to make a point. Let me give you an example. I once listened to a Harvard economist explain what happens when two large companies merge. He explained the difficulties of combining the different cultures, information technology systems, standards and procedures. He went through it as a pretty much left brain, dry explanation of what happens when two companies merge, making the point that it's very difficult. But he concluded by saying, "Bottom-line, when elephants mate, you don't get a gazelle." And that just pulls the whole point together, right? You'll never forget that. You might forget the specific facts, but you'll never forget the point he was trying to make.

Sometimes metaphors not only reinforce a point, but help someone understand something. They can also be used to overcome objections, to push back. For example, I was working with a salesperson trying to sell newspaper advertising to a chiropractor. The customer thought he would advertise once and get the results he wanted. But, the salesperson explained, he needed to advertise again and again, because repetition is what works. He didn't get it until she turned to him and said, "Look, when you have patients who come in to your office, do they need only one manipulation or several?" And, of course, without thinking, he said, "Several." And she said, "Exactly, if you're going to change something, change your perception, change your behavior, change the way a body works, you need several manipulations. Well, you need several impressions in a reader's mind too." Then he got it, because he understood it in his terms.

VT: Can you mix and match these techniques in your communication?

Anne: Definitely. Let me give you another example, of a speech I listened to recently about corporate support of education. The speaker started out with a story that was metaphorical but made the point that corporate America needs to cough up money to support education. Instead of starting very logically by explaining that our schools aren't adequately funded, she began with, "How would you feel if you were number 14 on a stand-by list for airline upgrades? Or if we were number 14 in the world in the Olympics? Well, you wouldn't like that very much, would you?" And, of course, everyone was sitting there going, "No way!" And then, she said, "Well, America is number 14 in reading scores and that's why it's time for you to step up to the plate." She concluded the speech by summarizing that "'14' is unacceptable. We need to be number one, and you're the guys who can do it." You can see how this metaphor appealed to our right brains, and why this was effective. The right brain is very emotional and associative.

VT: In your book you lay out a framework for readers to build these skills.

Anne: Most people think they can't come up with metaphors. My book gives a very simple, four-step system for developing your metaphor-writing skills. There are also some exercises at the end of each chapter to exercise your "metaphor muscle," as I like to call it.

VT: You also put something together called the "Metaphor Minute." Can you explain what it's about?

Anne: I started a newsletter called the Metaphor Minute that highlights examples of metaphors in action in business, media and politics, and how they're being used to do all the things we just talked about. It's been quite a lot of fun. People send me examples from all over the world. I publish this newsletter every month to stimulate my readers' thinking. People can subscribe to it for free [Click here to subscribe].


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Comments from our users:

Monday February 25th 2008, 4:43 AM
Comment by: Andre W.
Awesome & Interesting!!
Tuesday February 26th 2008, 12:39 PM
Comment by: Kenneth K.
This is excellent!! This speaks clearly to my work as a teacher. It is something we use naturally and can use more often and better.
Monday March 10th 2008, 4:15 AM
Comment by: Barry P.
Whew! You helped me realize that two-thirds of 'Triplets' are 'Twins'! How much of the picture do I see? How much of my Reader do I address? Euge! Euge!

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