Business School | Finding the Right Metaphor for Your Presentation

| November 25, 2014


Harvard Business Review:

When trying to persuade people to think and act differently, we study their wants and needs, what they care about, what keeps them up at night. Sometimes we reach them by making clear, concise arguments that address those concerns. But often it takes a little something more to engage an audience.

Metaphors can help by tapping what learning theorists call prior knowledge to make a connection between what people already understand through experience and what they have yet to discover. We do this naturally in conversation — for instance, “The news hit her like a freight train.” By comparing the situation to something people already know or can at least imagine, we convey its intensity and urgency. But when explaining our ideas in presentations, we’re sometimes reluctant to use verbal or visual metaphors to relate to audiences. I’ve heard people say that metaphors are “off topic,” or worse, “cheap.” Though using a cheesy one can elicit groans, more often than not, metaphors offer a shortcut to understanding.

But how do you pick the right one? By digging into your own prior knowledge for connections that make the idea brighter in your mind. The brighter that idea shines for you, the more likely it is to resonate with your audience.

To do that effectively, get back to basics. Many of us sit in front of a computer screen all day, but studies have shown that writing by hand activates a different part of the brain and may even improve idea composition and expression. So, while you’re searching for the perfect metaphor to access the full depth of someone’s prior knowledge, put your ideas down on paper — the old-fashioned way.

Very few people, if any, can come up with a brilliant metaphor on the first try. When we’re brainstorming in our shop, we write down the obvious choices right away just to get them out of our brains. After pushing past those, we’ll start to come up with more creative ideas. If we’re trying to illustrate partnership, we might begin with a cliché like a handshake in front of a globe but then move on to a reef ecosystem, for instance, or a photo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.


If you’re feeling stuck, start naming random objects and then try to make a connection between those and your concept. This simple exercise might not lead tothe metaphor, but it will jumpstart your brain.

Once you’ve generated some really good options, you’ll be tempted to stop. Don’t. Keep pushing past your creative blocks and into seemingly unrelated territory. The more unusual the metaphor, the better it will stand out in people’s minds. Our associate creative director says that the first good idea comes an hour into the brainstorm. Though you might not have to brainstorm for a full hour, the point is to reach beyond your first idea — or your seventh. And don’t start filtering out optionsuntil you’ve got a critical mass to work with.

Are metaphors really worth that much effort? I’d answer that question with another: How important is it for your audience to understand and embrace your idea?

HBR940Nancy Duarte is the author of the all-new edition of the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, as well as two award-winning books on the art of presenting, Slide:ology and Resonate. Her team at Duarte, Inc., has created more than a quarter of a million presentations for its clients and teaches public and corporate workshops on presenting. Follow Duarte on Twitter: @nancyduarte.


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