Pick a Metaphor That Works for You


In times of victory, your business is on the road to success. When things get a bit rocky, your business is a boat in a storm—let’s hope you don’t sink.

Of course, your business is really neither of those things. But it can be helpful to have a powerful metaphor to use to describe your situation and make it more understandable.

Believe it or not, research is increasingly suggesting that coming up with the right metaphor can have a profoundly transformative effect on both our personal and professional lives. Metaphors shape the way we look at the world and influence the way we respond to it.

First things first: A metaphor is a figure of speech which compares two or more unrelated things that share common characteristics. Of course your business isn’t “on the road” or “a boat in a storm.” But when your business is doing well, you’re heading toward your destination. When things are a bit dicey, you hope your business doesn’t go under.

Metaphors help us understand things better. They can also help us reimagine the task at hand, enabling us to see things from a different, fresher perspective.

A paintbrush is a pump

Imagine aliens landed on Earth and it was your job to explain to them what a paintbrush was. Maybe you’d say it was an instrument you dipped in paint to apply color to canvasses or other surfaces. That’s probably close enough to the definition the average person has for the utensil.

In the 1960s, U.S. philosopher Donald Schön was consulting for a group of product researchers. They’d designed a new paintbrush with synthetic bristles. The problem was it didn’t apply paint smoothly. As the team was figuring out why it wasn’t working, someone in the group had a eureka moment and exclaimed, “A paintbrush is a kind of pump!”

What the hell does that mean, you might be wondering. Pumps and paintbrushes both move liquids from one location to the next. Schön would later go on to write that “paintbrush-as-pump was a generative metaphor for the researchers in the sense that it generated new perceptions, explanations and inventions.” Eventually, the team built a paintbrush that applied paint smoothly.

All thanks to the metaphor.

How metaphors can power your business

Metaphors create meaning and can help define reality—however “untrue” they may be. For example, you might say to your significant other, “You are my home.” Obviously you’re not pulling a Luke Skywalker and living inside of him or her. What you mean is that you feel comfortable with your spouse. You can relax and feel safe when you’re with that individual. You could be in your apartment, on an airplane, or in the jungle. So long as you’re with them, you’re at home.

When you apply metaphors to your business, you can help your colleagues—as well as yourself—understand the problems you’re facing more easily. Your boss, for example, might not precisely understand what a DDoS attack is. Instead of trying to explain it from a technical perspective, you may be better off telling him or her to imagine 10,000 obese people trying to get through the same small door at the same time, thereby making it impossible for anyone to use the door—even the skinniest person in the world.

Nobody can read your thoughts—at least not all of the time. While your coworkers, bosses or employees may not be able to understand all the abstract ideas and concepts that are brewing in your mind, it may be much easier to communicate the points you’re trying to get across if you utilize metaphors.

Next time you and your team are stuck on a problem—it could be product-related or maybe something that has to do with your marketing strategy—try to look at it through as many different lenses as possible. Invariably, some of the comparisons you come up will be awful and you’ll have to discard them. But all it takes is coming up with a metaphor that makes sense to the right person. That comparison can spark the idea that changes everything.

Your business might not be a boat in a storm, and it might not be cruising on the road to success either. But it is certainly something other than simply “a business.”

Find the metaphor that makes the most sense for your business or the situation your team is facing. All stakeholders will be able to look at any problems from a fresh perspective—making the solutions you’re looking for that much easier to attain.

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