A hot guy. A viral video. A resurrected brand. Aside from describing last year’s Old Spice campaign, what do these phrases have in common? They all use metaphorical language to convey an idea.
The Greek word metaphorá means “to transfer” or “carry.” “Metaphor,” wrote Aristotle, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.”
Philosophers, poets and storytellers have long used metaphor to provoke thought and express seemingly inexpressible concepts. But metaphorical language isn’t limited to art and academics.
As a content marketer you can use metaphor to breath color and life into your copywriting. Metaphors help you hook prospects, hold attention, angle your offer, spotlight product benefits and win customers’ hearts and minds.
Metaphors: more than pretty words
Anyone whose work involves influencing minds—teachers, trainers, managers as well as salespeople and copywriters—benefits from using metaphors.
Metaphors help you:
- Create connections. Metaphorical language transmits not just the name, but also the properties of one thing to something else. Take the phrase hot guy. Your customer reads the word hot and imagines flames, smoke, glowing embers. Subconsciously she intertwines these images with the the word guy. Hot delivers far more palpable impact than pallid adjectives like handsome or sexy.
- Bypass critical thinking and analysis. Metaphors speak to your customer’s right hemisphere—the brain’s processing center for images, color, symbols, impressions and emotions—and bypass the left hemisphere’s focus on logic, numbers, sequences and analysis.
- Simplify complexity. What’s easier to say and understand? “The Dow seesawed” or “The Dow moved up and down sharply between gains and losses”? Other metaphors you may take for granted: your computer’s desktop, DNA fingerprints, the economic meltdown.
- Paint pictures in listeners’ minds. People think in images—not words—and remember what they see better than what they hear.
- Evoke emotion. Metaphors transfer culturally shared emotional experiences. The word stormy conjures black clouds, torrential rain and cracks of lightening. A stormy marriage conveys more emotional impact than a troubled or contentious marriage.
- Influence and persuade. With emotions stirred and mind excited, you’ll find prospects far more receptive to your product than if you’d presented it in plain and purely analytical terms.
But metaphors don’t appeal merely as clever turns of phrase. Humans, it seems, are hardwired to respond to metaphors.
Your customer’s brain on metaphors
At Harvard Business School Professor Jerry Zaltman studies consumers’ deepest feelings. His research helps marketers uncover word associations and create metaphors that bolster brands.
Zaltman’s studies differ significantly from conventional market research with its heavy reliance on language: word-centric surveys, questionnaires and focus groups. While Zaltman sees some value in verbal inquiry, he likens this superficial approach to “strip mining.” He notes that “Sometimes the valuable ore is on the surface. But often it’s not.” To strike gold, you need to dig deeper. Zaltman uses neurobiology, psychoanalysis, linguistics and art theory to probe consumers’ subconscious mental processes.
Motorola used Zaltman’s findings to brand a new security system. Slated to go to market as the “Talkatron,” Motorola renamed the product the “Watchdog” in response to customers’ word associations.
How to power your content marketing with metaphor
You’ll find dozens of ways to use metaphorical language in your content and campaigns. Metaphors add magnetic power to headlines and subheads. They help you brainstorm unique—and sticky—presentations and strategic plans. They integrate and unify an array of diverse content tools.
12 tips that help you mine metaphorical gold
But all metaphors are not created equal. It’s important to choose the right figurative words to embody a brand, position a product or simplify a complex service offering. Here are some pointers:
- Keep it simple—a metaphor that involves long-winded explanations defeats its purpose.
- Separate metaphorical gold from dross. Try to avoid clichéd metaphors. Your customer ignores these hackneyed, worn-out phrases.
- Spotlight your customer—rather than you and your product—as you brainstorm metaphors. Anne Miller, author of Metaphorically Selling, suggests you identify your customer’s point of resistance and create a metaphor to address it.
- Take a break and stop thinking so hard. Metaphor inspiration often comes during “down time” when you’re not trying so doggedly to reason, list and deduct. To give your workaholic left-brain a break, visit a museum or art gallery. Take a walk. Do some manual work—cooking, needlework, gardening—that doesn’t require thought.
- Lose the words when you brainstorm. As a creative exercise, try making visual art—use a white board, paper and pencil, paint, collage—to capture impressions of your product/service and your customer’s relationship to them.
- Cherry-pick action-packed metaphors—words that sear into your customer’s mind, tickle her imagination, weave active, evocative language.
- Don’t promise the moon. As exciting as it may be to claim your product will skyrocket sales, it’s always better to under promise and over deliver. Use metaphors that emotionally resonate with customers, rather than puff up your product.
- Mine the classics. You’ll find some of the most memorable metaphors in myths and fairy tales—before the Recession, Alan Greenspan declared the U.S. “blessed with a Goldilocks economy: not too hot, not too cold – just about right.” Shakespeare is also packed with figurative language—“The sales letter is full of sound and fury—but signifies nothing.” Or try the Bible: “Our company is David to Microsoft’s Goliath.”
- Borrow from popular culture. Your Superman CEO, treating cash flow like Monopoly money, a Justin Bieber-like Twitter following.
- Nix mixed metaphors. You’ll confuse—rather than engage—customers if you ask them to “wake up and smell the coffee to drive traffic like a bat out of hell.”
- Kill your darlings. It’s not about using metaphors that appeal to you, it’s about finding metaphors that speak to your customers—and get results. Run metaphors by a friend or colleague or consider A/B tests for important campaigns.
- Collect metaphors for a rainy day. When you hear or read metaphors you like, copy and file them away. Later, when you need metaphorical language for your copy or inspiration for strategic planning, you can refer back to your metaphor cheat sheet.
The painter Magritte noted that, “Everything we see hides something else we want to see.” As a content marketer, find the “something else” through metaphor.
More metaphor resources
Want to learn more about using metaphor in your content marketing? Check out some of these great resources:
- Metaphor Marketing, a must-read Fast Company interview with Jerry Zaltman.
- Writing About Metaphors in Your Discipline, excellent scholarly articles from George Mason University
- Metaphorically Speaking, a TED talk by James Geary
- Metaphorically Selling, How to Use the Magic of Metaphor to Sell, Persuade & Explain Anything to Anyone, a book by Anne Miller