Turbocharge Your Communication

3 Steps To Increase The Persuasive Power Of Your Language

The story goes that when Steve Jobs was trying to entice John Sculley to leave Pepsi-Cola and join Apple he used a powerful communication tool. He asked Sculley, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want to change the world?” Given that comparison, Sculley of course, moved to Apple. Steve Jobs was a Master Communicator. He was adept at going beyond the facts to inspire, engage and influence.

The way you communicate is critical to your business and personal effectiveness. At a minimum your communication needs to be clear, accurate and complete, but in many situations there’s another quality, as Jobs personified, just as important. It also needs to be persuasive. You spend a significant amount of your day trying to influence others. A recent Qualtrics study found that employees in the US were spending around 40% of their time in non-sales selling and persuading. Influence doesn’t happen through mental telepathy or osmosis. It happens through your communication skills and strategies. Getting your good ideas heard and acted on can be a real challenge. Emotions, relationships, differing perspectives and politics are facts of life.

Do you believe the facts speak for themselves? If you subscribe to that philosophy I bet that there have been times you’ve been disappointed by others not listening to, or accepting your “facts”. Let me be clear, it’s absolutely important to base your proposals and suggestions on a strong, supportable business case. But it’s the way you tell the facts that persuades.

In this post I want to move beyond the logical, rational, facts only approach. I want to focus on one little communication technique that, as Steve Job’s showed, can have a disproportionate impact; it’s a way of turbo charging a sentence or two to dramatically increase its persuasive horsepower.  See where I’m going with this? That’s right, Metaphor. A word or a phrase that’s used to make a comparison between two things. Metaphors can create an instant understanding in your listener. The right metaphor can be a catalyst for a dazzling sense of recognition. Many years ago, when my Drill Sargent at Marine Corps Officer Candidate’s School told me that I “was as smart as a soup sandwich” I didn’t need to ask for clarification. I knew exactly what he was implying. For the sake of this post, I’m lumping metaphors, analogies and similes all into the same bucket and simply referring to them as metaphors. Forgive me if I offend your grammatical sensibilities.

I mentioned to my wife that I was writing a blog post on using metaphors. Her response was “Does anybody care about that?” I guess the answer is I don’t know. But I do know that you should care. Metaphors can be a very powerful weapon in your influence arsenal. So, what does a good metaphor do for you?

  • It creates a connection between your idea / proposal and something else with which your listener is more familiar. That familiarity can lower the potential resistance in your listener.
  • It helps to simplify – often in a word or a sentence – a more complex issue. And with that simplification can come an increased sense of comfort on the listener’s part.
  • It can tap into and evoke emotional connections between your idea and the issue you are comparing it to.
  • It can create a sensory experience within your listener. They may feel, or see or even taste (sour grapes, anyone?) the association
  • It can multiply / magnify the more factual or statistical evidence that you employ to persuade.
  • It can alter the paradigm with which a person perceives the situation. By altering the paradigm, the metaphor can have a direct impact on the listener’s behavior.

The right metaphor is much more likely to be a surgical scalpel rather than a club. Many times your listener won’t even be aware of its impact. But just as the scalpel cuts a fine incision, a good metaphor can leave a lasting impact. That’s not just opinion. There’s actually research to back it up.

Professor Lera Boroditsky and doctoral candidate Paul Thibodeau of Stanford University conducted a study to gauge the impact of metaphor. Their research focused on attitudes towards crime. In five experiments, subjects were asked to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in the fictional city of Addison and answer questions about the city. In some of the descriptions, crime was framed as “a beast” in others it was described as “a virus”. That was the only difference – 1 word – between the descriptions. The researchers found that the subject’s attitudes about, and solutions for, crime were influenced by the metaphor. Subjects who read about crime as a beast were much more likely to endorse a law enforcement solution while the subjects who read about crime as a virus were more likely to support social reform. They concluded “We find that even the subtlest instantiation of a metaphor (via a single word) can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems like crime and how they gather information to make “well-informed” decisions. Interestingly, we find that the influence of the metaphorical framing effect is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions; instead they point to more “substantive” (often numerical) information as the motivation for their problem-solving decision.”  The right metaphor can be a pretty powerful way of getting your message across.

I’m not particularly skilled at the use of metaphor, but I try hard. Sort of like that kid on the t-ball team who has an earnest look of determination on his face but misses both the ball and the T three times out of five. But I don’t think I’m unusual in my lack of skill. In my experience few people use metaphors as frequently or as skillfully as they should. Part of the problem may be hardwired. I’m a pretty literal person. I tend to most naturally focus on my senses for my data. I concentrate on what I can see and hear and touch. And then I naturally describe it back that way to the people I’m communicating with, using concrete, literal descriptions. In Jungian Typology (MBTI Preferences) I naturally have a preference relying on Sensing (S) for taking in information. A friend and colleague – Mack Munro – is the opposite. His preference is Intuition (N). He sees the same things I do but more naturally makes connections between them and other things. He tends to think and speak more metaphorically.

Sometimes, when he gets rolling, the metaphors come out like the staccato of bullets from a machine gun (See I told you I wasn’t great at this). I on the other hand sometimes have to be hit over the head with it, if it’s not completely spelled out. I can remember spending a month doing a writing assignment in my office, listening to the same Jack Johnson song – “Break Down” – probably a hundred times before it dawned on me that he wasn’t really singing about a train breaking down. It was a metaphor for living life. I don’t want to be too pedantic about the MBTI / Type connection so let me just say that statistically there aren’t that many people floating around with a preference for N (about 25%). So, most of us are hardwired to look at things – and communicate our ideas – literally rather than metaphorically. Metaphors don’t come as naturally to us.

So what. I’m not Eric Clapton but I can still play a reasonable guitar. Particularly compared to someone who doesn’t play the guitar at all.  Despite being metaphorically challenged I’m able to use them when I need to. And the more I practice, the stronger the muscle becomes (That’s me practicing again). I want to offer you some ideas for developing your own metaphoric muscles.

Crafting A Useful Metaphor

Because I don’t naturally think in metaphor, I use a three-step process when I want to develop one.

1.) Consider the paradigms and perspectives of your target audience. Their:

  • Likely experiences
  • Achievements
  • Challenges
  • Interests

Example: I developed and facilitate a seminar called Influencing without Authority, I typically market “Influencing Without Authority” to mid to large corporations and organizations around the world. I was talking with a VP of Learning & Development about her organization’s needs. Among other things, she described a matrixed organization that relied on a very collaborative cross functional process for developing and launching new products.

2.) Identify the key elements / attributes of your idea or proposal. What are they? How will it work? What are its benefits? List them out.

Example: “Influencing Without Authority” is usually conducted as a two-day work session, but it is scalable. It provides participants with mental maps for influencing, navigating organizational politics and for creating strong partnerships. It employs an Influence Assessment, Influence Mapping Tools, Micro-Skill Practices, Case Studies and Experiential Activities. Participation in the seminar can help improve communication, leadership and an individual’s ability to get things done.

3.) Brainstorm connections between the needs and experiences of the listener and the attributes and benefits of your idea / proposal. Be creative. Blue sky it. Think outside of the proverbial box – but not too far. Developing a good metaphor is like writing a new song. It should sound original and familiar at the same time


Need of Learning & Development VP: A way to improve interaction within a matrixed organization

Attribute of Influencing Without Authority Seminar: Focuses on communication Skills

Possible Comparisons: Bridge, Tool, Lens,

Possible Metaphor: Influencing Without Authority can provide participants with the communication tools they need to build a bridge across the cultural and functional differences that they face within their matrixed organization to create a shared vision.

I know, I know, building a bridge isn’t the most creative or elegant metaphor. But for me it’s a step in the right direction. And, despite its simplicity, I did end up getting the business.

Metaphors can seem like small part of an idea or proposal. But they can be disproportionately powerful for the space that they take up. Mark Twain wrote “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug”. A metaphor just may be the “right word” you’re looking for to turbocharge your next idea.

What are your thoughts? Any favorite metaphors for getting your ideas across?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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