Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Working metaphors throughout a message: @rosannecash & @ivanoransky

When I'm coaching speakers who want to use an analogy or a metaphor, most of the time, they spend a lot of time thinking about the metaphor--and then toss it away in a moment. It's a one-liner, a clever riposte, a throwaway line, sometimes.

I much prefer to find ways to work the metaphor or analogy all the way through a talk or presentation. Not to beat it to death in a heavy-handed way, mind you, but to get the full use of it. It may seem like an intellectual exercise, but sometimes, working your way through a metaphor or analogy in a thorough way will help a speaker see holes in her argument. Analogies are useful for this purpose when you use them as a logical argument, and both analogies and metaphor can help speakers find a path toward a stirring and memorable speech. Our minds like to look for patterns, so when you work that analogy or metaphor all the way through a speech, I can almost guarantee its success rate in terms of audiences remembering what you said.

Listening again recently to a 2009 Fresh Air interview with singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, I found a great example to share with my trainees as a model: her recording of the classic country song Sea Of Heartbreak, which features lyrics by Hal David and great harmonies from fellow vocalist Bruce Springsteen. The song begins this way:
The lights in the harbor/Don't shine for me/I'm like a lost ship/Adrift on the sea. 
Sea of heartbreak/lost love an' loneliness/Memories of your caress/so divine I wish/you were mine again, my dear/I am on this sea of tears/Sea of heartbreak. 
How did I lose you?/Oh, where did I fail?/Why did you leave me/Always to sail?
The song comes from Cash's album The List, and in the interview transcript, where Terry Gross asks Cash why she chose to record the song, Cash says:
It's kind of a perfectly constructed country song. And it was on the list, so you know that gave me permission. And it embodies that longing that is in so much of country music really, really well, and beyond that, it takes a metaphor and carries it to the very end without breaking that narrative about the metaphor, without becoming kitschy, which a lot of songs do. And that's kind of perfect to me. And it's also - it makes it a bit of a period piece because you don't hear many modern songs that do that. And there's also some language in it that's not modern, you know, when he says divine and my dear. These are kind of old-school ways of talking, and I really enjoy that. So it was like stepping into a period piece. At the same time, it has the hallmark of every great song, which is that it transcends time. It has a timeless quality to it, and it feels very modern.
I think some of that timeless quality comes from a metaphor or analogy that's so recognizable, so reflective of real-life experience and imaginings that it resonates strongly with audiences over time--and that's why speakers should think about working a metaphor or analogy all the way through a speech or presentation.

Here's another example: Reporter Ivan Oransky, who spoke at TEDMED last year, uses the baseball movie Moneyball to explain the trend of diagnosing "preconditions," saying that medicine's looking for preconditions in the erroneous ways scouts used to look for good pitchers in baseball. He works it throughout the talk, explaining the link at the start, using a three-strikes analogy midway and bringing it home, so to speak, by tossing a baseball throughout the talk.

Cash herself is a prolific writer of prose in addition to lyrics, and you may enjoy her book Composed: A Memoir. Do you work your metaphors and analogies all the way through your speeches? If you're confused about the differences between metaphors, analogies and similes, look here.

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