The Magic Of Metaphor

First of all what is a metaphor? Here I use the term metaphor and simile interchangeably but technically a simile is simply saying that one thing is like something else and a metaphor is saying that one thing is something else. A simile is thus a metaphor but a metaphor is not necessarily a simile. Enough of the terminology!

Sometimes exaggeration or humour might be involved to help make the point. Many men might use the metaphor of their mother-in-law being a dragon. They are not saying that she literally breathes fire and flies but that she might be a little fierce and protective of her daughter (or dominating her husband!!). You get the point.

Metaphor can help us all in a number of ways. For instance I am a very visual person so when people insist on describing things to me using just words I have to try very hard to take in all of the information. If, however, someone says that the situation is like say, finding a needle in a haystack then I comprehend the situation quite quickly i.e. I know the amount of effort required and the likely outcome. To reach a wider audience you might need to try using metaphors that rely on different language for those people who respond to audio or kinesthetic stimuli.

I often use a particular type of metaphor when explaining the usefulness of using creative or alternative techniques to examine a problem situation. I’m sure that many readers will have experienced the horrors of hunting for a house or flat. You have a look at the particulars and one person focuses on the kitchen, another on the garden and another on the bedrooms or garage. All of these individuals are seeing the same situation but from different viewpoints. So just like viewing a property we can examine other scenarios (physical or otherwise) from different perspectives. One or more of these might even provide a solution (in the case of a problem) or suggest a course of action.

Keen followers of Agatha Christie’s fictional character Miss Marple will be familiar with her technique of mapping happenings of the wider world with things she could understand that occurred in her own village of St Mary Mead. So already we have a list of things that metaphors can help us with:

  • Giving explanations to those unfamiliar with a concept
  • Examining problem situations from an alternative perspective
  • Reframing situations
  • Communicating concepts to a wider audience
  • Learning or making sense of a concept that we are not currently familiar with

Another interesting use for metaphor is within stories and for use as a more sophisticated business tool but that is an article all of its own. But how about the application of metaphor, will it work for everyone and will it work everywhere?

We can use metaphor directly in:

  • Business
  • Politics
  • Creative Industries and the media
  • Any other areas that rely on human interaction

Metaphor works best when individuals can ‘connect’ easily with metaphors i.e. they are used to metaphor or storytelling and their lives are not littered with distractions. In developed countries we are buried underneath mountains of gadgets which we either rely on to automate our lives or which we take great delight in exploring in detail – we either want it to work or we want to read the instructions in detail. We do not wish to know that our new MP3 player is like a pepperoni pizza (or perhaps a more appropriate metaphor). I am speaking generally here, those who are emotionally intelligent will be using metaphor regularly.

In developing countries there is less technology and less complexity in life generally (but life is often very hard) and so people are often closer to their emotions. Storytelling and metaphors will work well here and have a very powerful effect. Rather like the argument that I put forward in a previous article regarding creativity in developed and developing countries, education also plays a part. So once again, who is best placed to take advantage of techniques such as this? Developed countries have a head start in the race to develop and are thus nearer the finishing line, but developing countries have the potential to be the faster runners!!!


Innovation – There’s a head in my shed, starting out from scratch

Many fledgling businesses do actually start out from a shed at the bottom of the garden. Hewlett Packard started this way and many other technological breakthroughs too (remember Marconi?). The shed is, however, just a metaphor for that inappropriate and often cluttered place that we find ourselves in with our good ideas. We are simply a head in a shed!

It does not matter whether you are a lone inventor who really does have a shed at the bottom of their garden or you work for a large organisation and your ‘shed’ is your office or laboratory. You have the same problems either way.

Take a look at this news article. The student in question is obviously talented but so what? She has very neatly illustrated our problem but in reverse. We are so familiar with the appearance of our shed, its contents and immediate surroundings that we see nothing else. We need a fresh perspective, new glasses (ditch the rose tinted ones) and a new mode of thinking. To go back to the first article in this newsletter and the concept of putting animals in places where they are not supposed to go – we have an elephant in our shed with us. It is an idea that has barged in and seems too big and well formed to be moved. We must replace it with a giraffe, something more suited to the marketplace, but how? And why a giraffe?

To continue using metaphors for a moment, the elephant is the easy option. Our minds often conjure up ideas that our egos build up into great and unbeatable business opportunities. These then take over our lives and we try to turn them into reality at all costs. These have barged into our lives like a stampeding elephant into our shed. In the world of inventors, elephants are ten a penny and we find them difficult to shake off. The giraffe is altogether more elegant and not so common, but how do we replace one by the other?

Here is a list of questions that we might ask ourselves:

  • Do I really want to do this or am I just running away from something else?
  • Is my idea well formed?
  • Is this really different, does it solve a problem, has it been done before?
  • Do I know what I am talking about, do others get it when I tell them about my idea(s)?
  • Do I really understand the target environment/marketplace?
  • Do I wish to retain ownership, am I willing to share?
  • Have I sought views/opinions from others?
  • How will I put this into practice/production?
  • Have I got the right skills?
  • Have I/we got the right environment?

Unlike the case of the disappearing car in the news article, you should now be more aware of what you are trying to do. Your grey elephant should have turned into something more elegant and more well formed. Why not take a look at some past newsletters and use some creative techniques to help investigate your new ideas in case you have missed something?

Good luck with your transformation!

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