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May 2024
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Metaphorically Speaking

Use visual language to build a bridge between you and your audience.

By Oscar Santolalla, DTM


On March 5, 1946, in the wake of World War II, Winston Churchill said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” On August 28, 1963, amid the enduring struggle for civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” What do these two historical statements have in common?

They reflect visual language. When we read or hear these phrases, we can’t help but create visual images in our mind: an iron curtain, quicksands, a solid rock. To be more precise, the speakers use metaphors, a powerful figure of speech.

We use and hear metaphors all the time. Do you remember the last time a politician was cherry-picking statistics to support their points? Are you following the Swiss cheese advice for protecting yourself from COVID-19? My aim is that in this article, you’ll learn the nuts and bolts of speaking in metaphors.

Click play to hear the hosts of The Toastmasters Podcast speak with Oscar Santolalla, DTM, about using metaphors in your presentations.

What Is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is a word or a few words that form an image, reflecting the point you’re making in figurative rather than literal language. Etymologically speaking, “metaphor” comes from the Greek word metapherein (meaning “to transfer”). Instead of saying, “Marta is very knowledgeable,” you might say, “Marta is a walking encyclopedia.”

Why You Should Use Metaphors

  • Metaphors use visual language. Visual language can evoke the senses and create long-lasting memories, and this is where the power of metaphor comes in.
  • Metaphors simplify complex concepts. I work in the tech industry, in which sooner or later we have to introduce a novel or complex idea. When you find it hard to explain a difficult or unfamiliar concept, a metaphor can be the right tool to use.
  • Metaphors help you connect your new concept with an idea that is already familiar to your audience. Every audience has developed deep familiarity with some movies, popular songs, sports, food, commonplace technologies, etc. Metaphors help build a bridge between that familiar idea and your new concept.

How to Create Your Own Metaphors

The title of my second book, Rock the Tech Stage, is an example of a metaphor. Also, I often say to speakers: Tele-transport us to your living room to convey the power of audience interaction in virtual presentations. Your audience wants to feel like we’re in front of each other, not at the computer on the other side of the world.

Here are a few simple steps to create your own metaphors:

  1. Choose a field or theme your audience is familiar with or fond of.
  2. Make a list of specific objects, people, or ideas that represent that field.
  3. Now consider the idea or concept you want to transform into a metaphor.
  4. Use one of the items on your list to visually represent or symbolize the idea you’re trying to get across.

You’ve created your own metaphor! Now test it with friends or colleagues. Here’s an example in action:

  1. Field or theme your audience is familiar with: Space.
  2. List of ideas that represent it: Planets, stars, satellites, comet, galaxy, black hole, gravity, probe, meteor.
  3. Your idea: The keynote speaker struck me with her passion.
  4. Metaphor: You saw the keynote speaker? Her passion is from another galaxy!

Will My Metaphor Work Everywhere?

Probably not. People share a lot in common across the globe, but in every country and region there are beliefs, laws, products, famous people, pop culture, and history that are unknown to the rest of the world. A well-crafted metaphor can work wonders in one country and be cryptic elsewhere. Know your audience well. And once you craft a metaphor, test it on friends or colleagues before using it widely.

Let’s Use More Metaphors

Metaphors are powerful tools of persuasion, or as speechwriter Simon Lancaster would say, “Metaphors are the nuclear weapon of communication.” And as any powerful tool, they can be used for good or for bad. Metaphors can persuade us that some products or technology are superior or inferior, metaphors can persuade us of injustice and convince us to take health advice seriously. But all in all, metaphors will make our words paint pictures in people’s minds.

Use metaphors, and you will be head and shoulders above all speakers!


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