“Any metaphor we utter is the process of a whole physical embodied experience of an individual in the world.”
Lakoff and Johnson

Metaphor uses one idea and links it to another to better understand something. This makes metaphor an extremely effective communication tool because analogy — a comparison between one thing and another, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification — is fundamental to thought.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have argued that metaphors are “containers for meaning” that change the fundamental way in which we experience the world.

“Every concept we have is essentially nothing but a tightly packaged bundle of analogies… all we do when we think is to move fluidly from concept to concept — in other words, to leap from one analogy-bundle to another.”
Professor Douglas Hofstadter

When you give someone information in the form of a metaphor, you preprocess it for them. You are placing a thought, and the side notes that go with it, directly and effortlessly into the listener’s mind. Scarily effective, no?

Metaphor and Persuasion

With great power comes great responsibility. A study published in January in PLOS ONE (an open-access resource from the Public Library of Science) examined how reading different metaphors–“crime is a virus” and “crime is a beast”–affected participants’ reasoning when choosing solutions to a city’s crime problem. Those who read the beast metaphor were more likely to opt for a direct approach emphasising enforcement, whereas the virus metaphor elicited a preference for a systemic, reform-focused solution. A follow-up survey indicated that many participants did not remember the metaphor they read, and none thought a metaphor could have influenced their reasoning.

Metaphor and Learning

Scientific discoveries of the brain show us that when action and language take place together, more brain activity occurs. Making and thinking, doing and learning, writing and reflecting, theory and practice — such obvious common sense. The fine detail of project activity (left hemisphere) and reflection upon the work (right hemisphere) mirrors the operation of the brain.
The process of the successful apprenticeship approach to higher education, and WBL (work based learning) at a higher level, is an example of the embodied, experiential operation of metaphor and yet, according to Dr Mike Howarth,  we are “largely oblivious” to this.

Metaphor and Selling

When two parties come from different backgrounds they can struggle to share understanding and find common ground.

Inside and out of your own organisation it is hugely important not to intimidate, patronise, confuse or bore your audience. To capture their interest, use analogies that they can identify with and, if selling in an idea or product, that remind them of the challenges they face in their own work; help them find the problem to which you can provide the solution.

Metaphor and Leadership

Think Martin Luther King.

In his provocative book on leadership, Howard Gardner (1995) argues that leaders achieve their effectiveness largely through the stories they communicate to others.

Story is a complex form of metaphor. Compared to conventional management techniques narrative unlocks the vital human element of a rapidly evolving workplace and generates energy in its participants. Sharing stories and metaphors to convey ideas creates commonality in individuals’ separate yet inevitably integrating lives – if ideas are not well communicated and, therefore, no one can “see” it, there may be little impact.


Metaphor can be used organisation-wide to successfully raise difficult issues in a nonthreatening way, understand how others see the world, establish rapport, solve problems, envision a positive future and symbolise intention – the list is endless.

Start developing your metaphorical muscles today!
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