The history of employee engagement is littered with inappropriate metaphors. I remember a client once insisting that we structure a big picture about financial services around the metaphor of a nuclear waste processing plant. It did make me wonder about their culture. But the bigger problem I think is not so much inappropriateness as lack of clarity – what does the metaphor mean?
For some people the diversity of interpretation is actually the whole point. As long as the picture gets people talking then does it really matter what’s in it? If the conversation is entirely exploratory then maybe that’s true, but in my experience that’s not why most managers are using visual language. Most managers want to catalyse conversation that is relevant to their outcomes. And most managers want the core elements of their story to be interpreted in a consistent way.
So how do you avoid metaphors blowing up in your face? Metaphor theory has been a hot topic in linguistics for a few decades now, as academics have started to realise just how pervasive a phenomenon it is, and how basic it is to all of human thought. If you’re like me then it was just another figure of speech you were taught in English class, alongside similes, oxymoron, alliteration and so on. But on a more basic level, metaphor is really just saying something is like something that it is not. And if you think about it, from this perspective all of language is metaphorical, because the words we use are not like the things the words refer to.
The reason we think of some phrases as being more metaphorical than others is that some comparisons are more obviously “wrong” than others. To say “this project is miles off course” is just as metaphorical as saying “this project is a hamburger”. If all speech is metaphorical to some degree, then the key for avoiding subjectivity in interpretation is to choose metaphorical expressions that accord most closely with universal experiences.
Joseph Grady has called these more basic associations “primary metaphors”. Grady’s idea is that there are experiences that are so baked into normal human development that we can effectively take their interpretation for granted. We’ve made a series of cards that we use to teach this idea in our training – here are a few examples:
Ideas like “power is up” or “time is motion” are not novel, linguistic creations. They are hard-baked into our experience from childhood. It’s really hard to imagine someone saying “our relationship has cooled” or “we have moved further apart” and interpret that as meaning that the relationship has got stronger, because our experience as babies is that our primary caregiver provided warmth and closeness. The metaphor is baked into the language, and makes sense to anyone with a normal upbringing.
So rather than just completely embrace or completely castigate metaphors en masse, we find it more helpful to distinguish between creative metaphors on one end of a spectrum (“the project is a dragon boat”) and primary metaphors on the other (“the project is big”). If you want to avoid subjective interpretation then stay toward the primary end.
Is there a place for creative metaphors in business? Absolutely! But their natural fit is for sensemaking and innovation, not for communication. Think about it – metaphors are a way of drawing comparisons between disparate concepts, so asking a question during a group session that explicitly demands a metaphorical response (“that’s like what?”) is going to reframe the content through a new lens for the whole group. In a situation that is ambiguous (or equivocal, as Karl Weick would say), using creative metaphors increases the chances of someone coming up with a new way of describing the situation that yields better insights / makes more sense / points to a solution.
The story above about project dragon boat is facetious, but this sort of thing happens all the time. The thing is, it’s only a joke for the people outside the room. For the people inside the room it feels really good. Even a completely ridiculous metaphor will feel good if it helps you make sense of your situation, because making sense always feels good. It’s only once it moves out of the environment in which it was created, and in which it made sense, that you start to have a problem.
This isn’t to say that a creative metaphor can’t be used on a broader scale. The Walt Disney Company is famous for using a studio metaphor across the company, with employees as cast members and so on. But if you’re going to attempt this then you need to be really sure that your metaphor is going to generate the feelings and associations you expect, and you need to invest massively in making the metaphor ubiquitous, not just across comms materials but job titles, department names, marketing strategy, internal brand etc etc etc. But we’re now well outside the realm of visual language.
To summarise, if you’re thinking about metaphors as something you might choose to use in your picture making, then think again: Metaphors are pervasive, whether you like it or not. Instead, think about them as a spectrum between primary associations (power is up, time is distance, stress is pressure etc.) and creative associations (power is a mustard seed, time is a honeypot, stress is a hamburger etc.), and stick to primary associations unless you’re prepared to deal with the fallout of having your imagery interpreted in a multitude of different ways.
If you’re new to these ideas but find the subject of metaphor intriguing, then you might be interested in exploring the young discipline of Cognitive Linguistics – this is the book most people start with.