“I just didn’t get the potatoes” — metaphors that work

“I just didn’t get the potatoes.”

potatoes and metaphorsNo, my friend wasn’t talking about an unexpectedly starch-free dinner. She was talking about a metaphor. Or, I suppose since they were literal potatoes rather than descriptions of potatoes, we should properly call them a symbol.

We had gone, separately, to see the production of Leonard Bernstein’s rarely seen musicalization of the Peter Pan story. At the opening of said production, a group of young people in yellow hazard suits wheeled a metal shopping cart full of potatoes onstage. They then spent several minutes scurrying back and forth, lining the potatoes up at the front edge of the stage. I think this action took place instead of a traditional overture. And if you’re wondering what potatoes have to do with Peter Pan, you are clearly not alone.

One of the primary rules of good directing is if you put something onstage, you have to use it. If the set has a balcony, you can expect someone will appear on it before the final curtain. If there’s a door, it will get slammed. If there’s a row of potatoes…well, Wendy affixed one around her neck (she told Peter it was a kiss) and it later saved her from being killed by an arrow. And Captain Hook’s crew speared them and cooked them like marshmallows over their campfire. That was enough to justify their existence for me.

Oh, and the shopping cart in which the potatoes made their original entrance! We saw that again, put to delightful use when it ferried a mermaid with a lovely voice across the stage at key moments. Well, you wouldn’t expect a mermaid to walk. She sat on top of the cart, waving her fin seductively.

Perhaps you can tell, this Peter Pan was a very fanciful production. Quirky and weird, and for the most part charming.

Use your potatoes—er, metaphors—wisely

But the potatoes.

My friend who didn’t “get” them is no rube. She’s a longtime theater reviewer around these parts; she’s seen it all. But I have to agree with her. The potatoes did seem rather random. Although the director made an effort to incorporate them in the stage business, there’s no real reason the items in question had to be tubers. They could as easily have been stuffed animals, or marshmallows, or pool noodles, or…

You might easily run into the same problem with your writing. Tell stories, use metaphors — by all means! But whatever you use must tie in with the theme of your work.

That’s not to say you need to address it in every paragraph. No faster way to bore a reader.

But if you start the piece with it, find a way to bring it back at the end. That will deliver a very satisfying experience for your reader. Bonus points if you can mention it lightly somewhere in the middle, but circling back to it at the end will tie up your writing in a neat little bow.

Oh, and this may go without saying, but don’t use potatoes. I mean, you can if they tie into your subject clearly. But don’t leave your audience scratching their heads—they might spend so much time trying to figure out your metaphor that they completely forget the important ideas you’re delivering.

Or they’ll find themselves craving French fries by the end of your speech.


Discover how to find unique metaphors and use them to make your work unforgettable. Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Details here.

“Significant objects”: How to make the usual unusual

We were talking in class about metaphor—it’s one of the toughest concepts to grasp, apparently. Not what a metaphor is—all of my writers have been through high school English class—but what a metaphor does. So I was searching for marketing pieces that use story and metaphor when I came across the Significant Objects project.

All of the best marketing uses stories, as the Heath Brothers have documented. Take toothpaste, for instance. A pretty mundane product.

You could market it with facts—People who brush their teeth regularly are X% less likely to get gum disease.

Or you could market it with a story.

An indirect story—People who use this toothpaste are X% less likely to develop gum disease.

A direct story: Use this toothpaste and you’ll have a dazzling smile.

An indirect story: People who use this toothpaste are X% more likely to die with all their original teeth.

If you’re really good, you can get consumers to tell themselves the story:

Ooh, I want a dazzling smile so I can be more attractive and get a date.

Whatever story you use, it’s still just toothpaste.

But the Significant Objects product used story in a different way. Writer Rob Walker and brand analyst Joshua Green bought inexpensive items at thrift stores and found fiction writers—some well-known and some not—to write a story about them. Then they took these knick-knacks and auctioned them on eBay.

Did the stories enhance the value of the objects? Not objectively. But they did enhance the perceived value: the average mark-up for some objects rose as high as 2700%. Yes, you read that right: 27x the original price. Retailers strive for a sale price of 3x cost.

Services as significant objects

If story can enhance the value of a souvenir ashtray, what can it do for something of real value—like the products and services we provide?

So I gave my writers an assignment: Write about your own business as if it’s a “Significant Object.”

Look, it’s never easy to write about your own business. If it were, there’d be a whole lot more marketing communications writers whipping up lattes and frappucinos. So I’m always on the lookout for ways we can write about our businesses indirectly, or at least from different angles.

So, “Write about your business as a Significant Object,” I said. A daunting assignment, but one that could yield valuable results. So I volunteered to do the assignment too.

Here’s what I came up with:

A new perspective

I was antiquing—that’s what one does on a rainy day on Cape Cod. Driving down the first “highway” in the United States—it’s little more than a country lane, but here and there you’ll find an old shack or cottage with an “Antiques” sign planted in the front yard, a strange species of native tree.

The quaintest of the shops lack sufficient parking, but those are the ones with the best finds. So I parked down a side street about a quarter mile away and hiked back.

Inside, in the only corner of the shop not covered in dust, I saw a woman sitting on a decidedly not-antique desk chair, reading a book. At first I thought she was the shop’s proprietor, but then I saw a small sticker affixed to her sweater, near her right collarbone: “$129.95.”

“Excuse me?” I hated to interrupt her reading, but I had to know what the joke was. She looked up. “You seem to have picked up a price tag by mistake.” I laughed. She didn’t.

“No mistake. One-twenty-nine-ninety-five. You’re not buying me—that’s been illegal in the U.S. for quite a while. But half an hour of my time, to talk.”

“What would we talk about?”

“Mostly people like to talk to me about writing,” she replied. “I’ve won awards for it. In fact, I teach it. But I like to come here on rainy Saturdays because you never know who you’ll run into. Would you care to buy a chat?”

“Actually, I was looking for a bargain I could resell at a profit. A hidden treasure,” I said. “Have you noticed anything like that in this shop?”

“Treasure? I assure you, young woman, that I am worth my weight in gold.”

I sized her up—yep at that rate, $129.95 would be a real bargain. So what could I do? I bought a full hour.

And we talked about things I’d never thought about before. And the things I had thought about before—well, she showed me different perspectives on them. The ideas seemed to glow, hanging between us like a crystal chandelier as we turned them this way and that.

When I left the shop, the rain had disappeared. The skies were bluer than I’d ever seen them, the air felt crisper. And so did my mind.

I turned around and bought another half-hour. For you.

What’s it worth?


Is something holding you back, keeping you from discovering your writing talent? Join Writing Unbound and set your creativity free.

A little bird told me…: What we can learn from the world

Walking my dog in the backyard Friday morning, I noticed a little bird. Now, I am not Nature Girl so I cannot tell you what kind of little bird; give me credit for recognizing that it wasn’t some sort of airborne chipmunk. It was about the size of a dinner roll, grey and black and white. Very stylish looking.

not a little bird
Even I know this is not a little bird. Why doesn’t Google know that?

After I saw the first bird, I noticed it had many friends. They were hopping around from branch to branch. Occasionally I heard a whir as one took flight to get to a higher perch. And they were twittering, happy.

Are they new to the ‘hood or did I just never notice them before? I’d bet on the latter. But I stood there watching them long past the time my dog was ready to move on.

A little bird told me…

When I got back to my desk, I opened my email and found a note from someone on my mailing list. I’ve been sending out writing tips all week, as a way of promoting my Writing Unbound course. And she found one particularly compelling:

a little bird put this note from a client in context

When I checked the email to find out what this revelatory “third tip” was, I almost fell off my chair:

little birds can carry big metaphors

A little bird, a big metaphor

So what metaphor can I attach to the little grey-black-and-white birds in my backyard? What story could they carry for me or for my clients?

Since I saw them on Inauguration Day, I’m going to go with Community.

At first, I only noticed the one bird, because it was making noise. But when I looked up, I saw it wasn’t alone. There were many more in the branches, in the air.

We sometimes feel alone. And in the coming weeks, months, hopefully not years, we may be made to feel even more isolated. But we’re not alone in our noise-making. In our outrage. In our need to do something about what’s going on in our country. We’re part of a community of noise-makers. And we can each use the gifts we’ve been given to speak up about what matters to us.

Looking at the tree from my office window I can see the little birds are gone now. But they told me the story I needed to hear today.


My Writing Unbound course begins in early February. Join us and learn how to tell stronger, more effective stories. Because everyone needs to, these days.