How Tired Is Your Metaphor?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

Many great joke tellers know to preface their jokes with this old saying, to prevent themselves from losing their audience with a joke or anecdote that their audience has heard before.  So why is it so rare for corporate storytellers to give their audience that same common courtesy?

The power of storytelling and metaphors as a way of communicating to our teams is indisputable.  People connect personally to the stories and can identify patterns quickly from metaphors.  When one is trying to communicate a new idea a metaphor can be an incredibly powerful storytelling technique, connecting a familiar idea or pattern to something new and foreign to the audience.

But what too often happens once a leader has found a metaphor that resonates with their audience is that the metaphor becomes a “standard” in their repertoire, becoming the go-to story to communicate new ideas. Unfortunately this reuse has exactly the opposite effect that the speaker hopes it will have – rather than inspiring people and connecting them to the new idea, they instantly tune out at the start of the story because they have “heard this one before”.

The same can occur when a metaphor is used to communicate an initiative that is a journey.  Longer term initiatives that will have multiple related phases are particularly at risk for the “heard this one before” metaphor.  While using one story can have the effect of stitching together the multiple phases and iterations around a common theme, after a while people start to tune out to the concept – the metaphor loses its impact, and the future phases of change get less and less buy in as long when the story stays the same.

Changing the story and the metaphor, even when the concepts you are presenting aren’t completely new, forces your audience to think about the concepts in a new way.  By forcing people to apply a new mental image to the concept they are forced to look at things with a fresh mindset and they are more likely to connect with what’s new rather than tuning out the message.

So how do you know when your metaphor is in need of a refresh?  There are a couple of key things you can do to ensure your message stays fresh and impactful:

  1. Observe Your Audience
    Because public speaking and storytelling can be an uncomfortable practice for many people it can be difficult to focus on “reading the audience” when in reality the speaker is just trying to “get through” their material.  As a result, the crowd tunes out at the first sign of the tired metaphor and the speaker is oblivious to it.  Take the time to improve your comfort as a speaker and you will become attuned to the reactions of your audience and the deflating energy of your tired metaphor will become as obvious to you as it was to the rest of the room.
  2. Proactively Test New Metaphors
    I’m not suggesting rolling out a new untested metaphor at your next big presentation to the board, but rather to try out new stories with smaller audiences as part of your regular communications (and then refer to #1 above).  As you introduce new ideas or ways of communicating an idea through a new metaphor you may find another new metaphor that resonates as well or better than the original that you can add to your toolkit.

Metaphors can be an incredibly powerful storytelling technique, but if you don’t keep your metaphors fresh you risk the “heard this one before” reaction from your audience and not only will your metaphor lose its impact but your overall message will get lost in the yawns. If you have something new and impactful to communicate, you may want to consider a metaphor-phasis rather than extending a tried and true story from your “standards” collection.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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