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Metaphor - the Writer's Best Friend

"The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance.” - Aristotle

We use metaphors quite literally all the time without even noticing them – her glass is always half full, he’s building a successful business, she’s on fire, it’s been a journey. They are the poetry bubbling underneath our prose, they act as bridges between prior knowledge and new concepts.

What’s really interesting about metaphors from the coach's perspective is how they can shape our attitudes without us even being aware of it. I worked once with a woman whose metaphor for her life was spinning plates. She used it in conversation, light-heartedly, ruefully, but as we explored it she realized just how deeply it ran: she saw her life as ultimately pointless, as a disaster waiting to happen, and anxiety had become her default emotional state. Together we tried out some alternative metaphors and she settled in the end on a tapestry: she was gradually, patiently creating something beautiful out of a multitude of different threads. It created a transformation in the way she felt about herself and how she went about her business. Changing your metaphor can change your mindset, and changing your mindset can transform your life.

Metaphors are also of great interest to authors because they can serve as a powerful shorthand – find the right metaphor for your book title, and you can create immediate engagement, curiosity, surprise, familiarity, and a whole host of subconscious positive associations. It can also give you a natural shape to your book.

Chicken Soup for the Soul conveys nourishment, care, comfort, healing, love. That book could have been called 101 Inspirational Stories – but it almost certainly wouldn’t have sold as well.

Guerilla Marketing immediately conveys action, excitement, doing things differently, making the most of whatever you have. The metaphor is extended throughout the book, with appendices including ‘The 200 weapons of guerilla marketing’ and ‘Information arsenal for guerillas’.

Each of these books has a sub-title setting out more prosaically what the book is actually about: the title with its powerful metaphor engages the emotions and piques curiosity, the subtitle is the explanation that satisfies the brain.

The trick is to find a metaphor that’s not immediately obvious – because obvious has no impact – but at the same time not forced. Lodge the question at the front of your consciousness then allow yourself to associate freely and be alive to possible connections and similarities as you go about your business – inspiration can come from the most unlikely sources.

Serendipity is a beautiful thing but it can't be relied upon, sadly. If the universe fails to present the right metaphor, I encourage clients to brainstorm – write down all the obvious, clichéd metaphors so they don't clutter your brain and push on for as long as possible, ideally with a friend or two (brainstorming alone is a dull, unsatisfactory business), finding more and weirder connections. If you start to dry up, get outside and force yourself to find parallels between your concept and a random set of found objects - leaves, cars, children's playpark, whatever - to kickstart your brain, then come back and brainstorm some more.

Once you have a few good ideas, don't try to choose immediately: leave the flip-charts and the post-its up for a couple of days and see which ones grow on you, try extending likely metaphors to see how far you can push them before they break, test them on people in your target audience to make sure they're meaningful and appropriate.

When you find the right metaphor, the impact is transformative: rather than writing in sand, to be obliterated by the next wave of incoming content, you tattoo your message onto your reader's brain.

This entry was posted on 11 February 2015 at 13:14 and is filed under content strategy | business coaching | writing | books. You can leave a response here.

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