“I think in metaphors now”—A Case Study on Finding Ideas

“I have no idea what I want to say this month”—my client began—”but this morning I started thinking about…” And then she unspooled a perfect, and perfectly appropriate, story about something she observed recently, a metaphor that made her message come alive.

She asked me, “What do you think?”

“I think I have trained you well, Grasshopper.”

After she finished laughing, she said the most rewarding five words I’ve heard in a long while:

“I think in metaphors now.”

My client would be the first to tell you she’s no poet. She’s a corporate executive in a decidedly unpoetic industry. But after working with me, she’s started looking at the world differently. She’s started going on Story Safari.™

If you haven’t heard that phrase before, it’s because I invented it. It’s about hunting for stories—real things that happen in the world or events in your daily life—that can help you find a new way into your message.

Story Safari™ gives you a story only you can tell

When I first started writing for this particular client, she’d start our calls by telling me the message she wanted to convey: It’s promotion season, so let’s talk about advancement.

Well, anyone can talk about “advancement”—it’s a pretty generic topic. But if you tie it to something real that happened to you or that you observed—if you go on a Story Safari™—then you’ll find a unique angle, a story only you can tell.

Before my client started thinking in metaphors, I had to try to look through her eyes at what had happened to her. Usually I’d start by asking if she had any personal stories to share around the subject du jour.

Sometimes clients get a little touchy about this: they’re so used to generic messages that they don’t understand why I need to know about their niece or their vacation or their first car. But personal stories help readers connect to your message. And they make that message infinitely more memorable.

After a few months, my client started noticing the difference between my Story Safari™ pieces and the generic stuff writers had turned out for her before. People started not just reading her messages—that was amazing enough—but responding to them. Like this:

“you connect the really simple things in life to something that we can use at work. Absolutely love the idea, which leaves me thinking about this every time I do what is mentioned.”

“Advancement” and the redwoods

When it came time to talk about the piece on “advancement,” my client had just gotten back from vacation, so I asked what she’d done. She mentioned a couple of things, but then got to one incident that really stood out.

She and her friends biked down a new road and found themselves at the bottom of a very steep hill. They decided to tackle it and when they got to the top, they found themselves in a stand of redwood trees. It didn’t take much prompting to get her to see the metaphor connecting this story to her message:

“You run into challenges in your career, but it’s worth going through them.”

The result? A story about advancement that only my client could tell. Here’s the opening:

I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t think about work while I was away on vacation. (And I hope you don’t either!) But I have been thinking about my vacation since I came back to work.

One moment in particular keeps coming back to me. I think it’s a kind of metaphor for what we do to support our clients.

This was a family-filled vacation. A bunch of us rented a house in the Napa Valley and pretty much every day we’d go out and explore on our bikes. One day we were just riding along and found ourselves in an area we hadn’t been to before. No problem there—until we realized that we were standing at the foot of a very long, very steep hill.

Now, I love biking. But I’m not so crazy about hills, and this one was a doozy. Still, somehow I found the strength in my legs to get up the hill. And when we all got to the top we got a great reward: a beautiful stand of redwood trees. It was spectacular!

So what’s the connection with [our organization]?

I think work can sometimes be like that bike trip. Even if you’re working from your strengths—even if you absolutely love what you’re doing—you’re going to have times when it feels like you’ve just run into a giant hill. And somebody expects you to climb it!

[W]e help our colleagues throughout the organization learn the skills they need to get up the hill—or find another way to build on their strengths and succeed. That’s essential work. And I’m proud of how well you do it, day after day.

Speaking of climbing the hard hills, [a number] of our colleagues got promoted this month…

You see? It’s a Story Safari™ on wheels.

Hunt for your own metaphors

My bike-riding client now thinks in metaphors. And you can too.

If you’ve already got a writer, as my client does, the writer will thank you for arriving at your meeting with story in hand.

And if you’re writing your own material, you’ll be amazed at how differently people respond to your message. They’re more engaged, more enthusiastic.

A good story helps your readers or audience relate to you—and they must relate to you if you want them to remember you. A good story embeds your message in their brains much more firmly than a statement of facts.

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