Metaphor: Itís not just for poets anymore

by Paul McDonnold

I recently read the book I is an Other by James Geary. Weird title, but a great read, all about the role metaphor plays in language, communication and persuasion. If itís been awhile since your last English Lit course, a metaphor is a description of one thing in terms of something else. To put it metaphorically, a metaphor is sort of a chain the communicator connects between two different ideas or objects.

A poet might say that his love is a red, red rose. Thatís metaphor at its most basic. But what does it mean? Is the poetís love a form of plant life? Probably not, but perhaps his love has recently bloomed into something colorful and beautiful.

ĎSo what?í you may ask. ĎIím a financier, not a poet.í That may be, but you are also a communicator and a persuader where your business is concerned. And metaphor is far more important to communication and persuasion than most people realize.

Metaphor even underlies language itself. Using a particularly apt metaphor, Geary calls it the skeleton of language. This is because the most efficient way to understand something new is in terms of something old Ė something already understood. So when words are created to describe something new, they often link metaphorically to existing concepts. Thatís why your carís engine is rated in terms of horsepower. Itís also why your computer has a desktop, not to mention a mouse.

The world of finance and economics is filled with metaphor. When people first began to comprehend the financial world, they described it in terms of something they already understood Ė the flow of water. Thus we can talk of concepts such as liquidity and cash flow.

In many cases, the original metaphor behind words has been largely forgotten. For example, you may not know that broker once referred to a person who tapped kegs of beer and wine in a tavern. The modern broker taps financial liquidity and, in the case of a few I know, beer and wine as well. Either way, the metaphor works.

But does an understanding of metaphor help in communicating the value of your business or service? Yes, and it turns out that is one of the most interesting aspects of the story. But I donít want to give away the farm, so to speak, at least not quite yet. So I will save the full exploration of that topic for the white paper I am planning. Iíll notify you when itís ready. In the meantime, let me know if you need help with anything and have a great summer!