Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mastering the metaphor: How to avoid cliche and strike the right phrase

In this Studio 360 interview with author James Geary about his new book on metaphors, you get a tour through familiar metaphors (raining cats and dogs, no man is an island) and a chance to rethink how you use them in your speeches, presentations and everyday speaking. Titled I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, the book is from one of my favorite authors on language. Here are Geary's tips for thinking through metaphors and how to use them:
  • Understand the 'paradox of metaphor:' Metaphor lets us describe what something is, using something it's not.
  • Use metaphor to describe something abstract, ideal or emotional.  Those states are difficult to make concrete, and in describing them, metaphor is more vivid. Take economic metaphors, many of which involve fluid dynamics: liquidity, solvent, saturated. 
  • Metaphors have subtle psychological effects.  People have been exposed to financial commentary with metaphor had expectations that soaring home prices would continue. In that way, they create a frame through which your listeners think about an issue.
  • Don't misuse "literally:" When you say,"It was literally raining cats and dogs," it increases the confusion between metaphor and reality. "People use the word 'literally' metaphorically," says Geary. "Even literal statements...factual statements are metaphors."  Take "no man is an island," which is both factual and metaphorical.
  • Use metaphors sparingly. Overuse of metaphors diminishes writing.  Cliches become cliches because, when first used, they were incredibly good and powerful. Another "paradox of metaphor:" the more overused a cliche becomes, the more we mistake it for the truth.
  • Use metaphor appropriately.  Sometimes, cliched metaphors represent lazy writing. Geary cites George Orwell, who urged writers to create their own metaphors.  ("Think outside the box" is one example cited.) Geary notes that using the wrong metaphor can shut down listening in your audience, while using the right one has the opposite effect.
Listen to the Geary interview on Studio 360 here:

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