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Speak Metaphorically to Influence Literally

Speaking metaphorically can help you influence people, literally. This post was inspired by the Ted Talk Metaphorically Speaking from James Geary.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary a metaphor isa figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”

He is my personal example of a metaphor. Several weeks ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was called before Congress because of the impact Facebook, fake news, and user data may have played into the 2016 presidential election. As our elected officials tried to grill Zuckerberg it was apparent they had little to no knowledge of how Facebook and other social media outlets operate. In response to this fiasco I post the following on a few social media sites:

“Imagine horse owners in 1910 grilling Henry Ford about car accidents and you have a picture of what happened the other day.”

People understood exactly what I meant right away. What would the impact on the newly formed auto industry have been if congressmen who rode horses ignorantly questioned Henry Ford about the dangers of automobiles? We might still be using the horse and buggy to get to work or at least set technology back many years if not decades!

For the most part people think in pictures, not words. When I mention an elephant it’s highly unlikely you’ll think “E-L-E-P-H-A-N-T.” Instead you probably have an image in mind. For some people it’s a big African elephant with huge tusks. Others might envision the smaller Asian elephant used in some Indian Jones movies. And other people pictured a cute baby elephant like the one in the movie Dumbo. No matter how people think of an elephant, we all use pictures in our mind’s eye and would likely agree on what an elephant is, despite minor differences.

Metaphors can take a complex subject and immediately make it understandable for most people. I’d guess if you didn’t see any of the Zuckerberg – Congress interaction you got a pretty good idea of what happened based on my 22-word description.

When Steve Jobs wanted people to grasp what a computer could do for them he said the computer was like “a bicycle for the mind.” Bicycles are easy to use and make us much more efficient in getting from one place to another. Most people, upon hearing Jobs, probably thought, “Yea, I get it.”

Much of persuasion is about taking the complex, simplifying it then communicating with people in a way that gets them to say “Yes” and take action. Next time you need to share something complex, don’t talk in technical terms, think about the proper metaphor to share and you’ll increase your odds of success. In other words, speak metaphorically to influence literally.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLEand Learning Director at State Auto Insurance. His Lynda.com course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed nearly 130,000 times! Have you seen it yet? Watch it and you’ll learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.