Metaphor: guiding your audience’s attention

“If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” — Joseph Campbell

I ran across that Joseph Campbell quotation in Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion.

Cialdini argues that “the main function of language is not to express or describe but to influence.” And he’s assembled an impressive array of scientific research to back up that contention.

Influence runs on a spectrum from benign to coercive. We can influence by sending subliminal messages, that the audience barely perceives. By offering advice, one friend to another. By instructing, when an authority figure weighs in with expertise. We can also influence as Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather did, by “mak[ing] him an offer he can’t refuse.”

We’re seeing a lot of that kind of influence these days. Generally we call it “bullying.” But how—short of placing a severed horse’s head in someone’s bed—do we make that influence more memorable? Enter our friend the metaphor.

Metaphor, serving writers for over 2,350 years

In 335 BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle codified much of what was then known about literary theory in his book Poetics. Aristotle defined metaphor as “giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” In another work (Rhetoric, for anyone out there as nerdy as me), he explained, “Metaphor most brings about learning.”

So if you want to “bring about learning,” use a metaphor. But—I hear you say—I’m not teaching anything. I’m just talking about my business [or whatever your subject is].

Ah, but if you engage the minds of the people in your audience, they’re more likely to remember what you say. And Cialdini believes you’re more likely to get them on your side.

Metaphor gives your readers of listeners a little puzzle to think about. Cialdini uses the example of a long-distance runner “hitting the wall.” Our brains take in those words literally, and then quickly recognize the metaphor. Walls block forward progress. Right! The runner felt unable to continue. On subsequent hearings, we’ll recognize the figure of speech more quickly. But it still produces a millisecond of “Wait, what?” in our brains.

When you open your writing with a metaphor, you engage your audience in a way that a straight recitation of facts can never do. Extra points if it’s a metaphorical story.

Metaphor in modern writing

Writers for The New Yorker specialize in using metaphors and stories to hook a reader. I once read an entire article about manufacturing toe shoes for ballerinas. I have zero interest in ballet or shoe manufacturing, but the writer was just that good. I blogged about another masterful New Yorker article a few years ago. Writer Adam Gopnik grabbed me by the lapel with a story about the Beatles and then segued into an article about geopolitics.

In both cases, I learned something. That Aristotle guy was a smart cookie.

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