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.

Exclamation marks and hot peppers

Why are exclamation marks like hot peppers? Use both sparingly.

Tomorrow, we in the U.S. wrap up a presidential campaign that’s seemed at times like a bowlful of hot peppers served up as an entrée. And when I say “wrap up,” I really want that to mean “finish.” But will it just be the start of something even nastier? Whichever way the vote goes, I don’t have much hope of Civility returning to our political discourse anytime soon. I think she’s run away to Canada, with their hunky prime minister and universal healthcare.

But back to writing.

Discussions have gotten heated during this election season. Exclamation marks have emerged—and not just for the Cubs’ victory, which really deserves them.

Seriously, if your team wins the World Series after more than a century of disappointment, you have my full and complete permission to !!!!! until your finger gets tired. Then rest and !!!!! some more. But that exception is unlikely to apply to anyone else in the foreseeable future, so we’d better learn the proper way to use exclamation marks.

And so I give you a handy flowchart Beth Dunn put together over at Hubspot. Read it, commit it to memory—and then please, for your readers’ sake, heed its advice.

Beth Dunn's flowchart helps you decide when to use exclamation marks
Handy flowchart written by Beth Dunn & designed by Tyler Littwin

You may feel excited after the election results come in. That’s perfectly okay. But don’t look just at the upper left quadrant of your keyboard to express that emotion. Exclamation marks don’t say “I’m excited!” as much as they say, “I’m a lazy writer.”

Exclamation marks or words?

So how do you express excitement? As your mother may have said: “Use your words.”

That’s what Beth Dunn says too. More than once. Here, look at the subliminal message in her post subtly titled “Lay Off the Exclamation Marks, Buddy.”

“Exclamation marks are singularly unsuited to the task of getting your users excited about using your product. And yet they seem to be the tool that everyone reaches for first when excitement is what they want to create.”

She’s writing about marketing communications—her area of expertise—but the advice applies universally. If what you’re writing doesn’t convey excitement, then write something that does.

“And if your product is awesome, then you don’t need to gild the lily with frantic words and shouty little exclamation marks.”

So let’s not shout. And let’s ease up on the hot peppers too. Let’s give Civility a call and see if she’d like to come back to a slightly warmer climate. Toning down the rhetoric—that’s another great way to avoid exclamation points.

Truth or consequences – the shrinking power of words

Words have consequences. And those of us who use words—whether we write them or speak them—must take responsibility for what we say.

Language only remains meaningful if we use it in integrity, but that has become increasingly rare, across the political spectrum. The orange-faced politician tells his supporters to monitor polling places “in certain areas”—and everyone understands that to mean areas that aren’t likely to vote Orange. And twenty years ago, a Democrat taught us to distrust even the simplest words. The truth, he famously said—under oath!—”depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”

Once upon a time, facts could stop an argument. Now a muttered “Not true” will neutralize any issue—even if there’s documentary evidence. Yes, you did say that, sir, and here’s the videotape. We’ve been playing games with language for too long; the linguistic chickens are coming home to roost.

A few months ago, The Guardian published an article that asked:

“What happens when political language fails?”

The writer, former BBC director general Mark Thompson, offered an answer that gives me chills:

“From the fall of Athens to the rise of totalitarianism, observers from Thucydides to George Orwell have associated a breakdown in public language – or rhetoric, to give it a more traditional name – with the failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”

Words have always had consequences; perverting the language makes those consequences quite dire.The headline on Thompson’s piece promises to examine how the breakdown of rhetoric contributed to the Brexit vote in the U.K. and to the rise of Donald Trump (thusfar) in the U.S. But English is not the only language in which “rhetoric” has gotten a bad name. Thompson notes that politicians routinely

“…deny that they were in the rhetoric business at all. If they mention the word, it is only in the context of the detested public language of the establishment. ‘If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s rhetoric,’ that Trump-before-the-fact Silvio Berlusconi once remarked. ‘I’m only interested in what needs to get done.’

Italians actually elected Berlusconi—he served nine years as prime minister despite having significant ongoing legal problems, and possibly even ties to the Mafia. He also has an eye for the ladies, but—hey!—at least he’s honest about his hair: no comb-over. Read more about this political paragon here.

The consequences of rhetoric abuse

But back to rhetoric. Thompson writes,

“One of the advantages of noisily rejecting any notion of rhetoric is that, once listeners are convinced you’re not trying to deceive them in the manner of regular politicians, they may switch off the critical faculties they usually apply to political speech and forgive you any amount of exaggeration, contradiction or offensiveness. And, if rivals or the establishment media then point this out, your supporters may dismiss it as spin.”

The passage I boldfaced just horrifies me. The consequences of abusing rhetoric appear to be that there are no consequences to abusing rhetoric. The more people candidates lie or ignore facts, the less people come to care. But don’t take my word for it; listen to an actual voter:

“Here is Florida voter Yolanda Esquivel, quoted by the BBC in November 2015, rejecting criticism of Trump for his outspokenness: ‘I’m looking at what candidates can do, not the picky little things they say that people want to make a big deal of.'”

Like the lady says, it’s about what candidates do, not what they say. But by definition non-incumbent candidates can only talk; the doing can’t begin until after the election.

We can’t talk our way out of this

If they can’t use words, how can candidates convey specifics about what they have not yet done, but want to do? I ask as a citizen, not as someone who creates the dreaded Rhetoric for a living.

If speeches don’t work, what will? Because we need something that does. I mean, assuming we want to avoid the fate Thompson says awaits us. Remember? I quoted it at the beginning of the article—”failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”

People who believe words mean nothing close themselves off to new sources of information. How do we then change their perceptions of the world? How can we right the sinking ship of state and find the civility we need to make democracy work?

Words got us into this mess. What in the world can get us out of it?