Tap into the power of metaphor

Winston Churchill warned of an iron curtain descending across Europe. Martin Luther King shared his dream. John F. Kennedy decreed that the torch has been passed to a new generation. 

In all three cases, the speaker used the power of metaphor to paint a vivid picture to get listeners behind their ideas. 

A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes a subject by comparing it to and calling it the same as an otherwise unrelated object. The word metaphor comes to English from the Greek term to carry between or transfer. In other words, a metaphor lets you carry meaning from one entity to another. So, a good use for metaphor in a speech or presentation is to help the audience see or understand a concept. 

Aristotle said metaphor is a sign of genius. And, modern neuroscientists agree. They say that the part of the brain that deals with metaphor is associated with greater intelligence. So, play to the intellect: use metaphor to get people thinking.

Metaphors are also useful for helping your audience shift their perception and view an idea in a new way. Choose a metaphor to make a connection between something that is already familiar and accepted and the new concept. 

Finding the right metaphor to fit the topic, occasion, speaker (if you write for someone else) and audience takes some thought. There was a time when writers could refer to great works of literature, Greek mythology, or the Bible. Today, not so much.

Much of the power of a metaphor depends on people recognizing the connection instantly. So, look for objects you know people will get in a flash. Here are some places to start your search.

• Popular culture: TV ads gave us "Where’s the Beef?"  TV shows gave us “being voted off the island” and the pronouncements of Dr Gregory House.  Movies gave us “The Perfect Storm”.  

• History: 100 years after the good ship went down, we still talk about hitting an iceberg or re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

• Song lyrics: “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Both Sides Now”, “Wild Horses”, practically anything by Leonard Cohen.

• Or, simply take John Lennon’s advice and “Imagine”.