October 30, 2012
I Is an Other (5): Metaphors at Work
In business, psychology, science and politics, successful metaphors should be as common as one-liners at a comedy convention, as numerous as drunks at a tailgate party, as bountiful as bribes in Chicago politics.
In advertising, GEICO, the insurance company, has successfully grabbed attention with its use of metaphor (or it's close cousin, the analogy) in its "Happier Than" campaign.
GEICO makes me happier than Christopher Columbus with speed boats.
GEICO makes me happier than a witch in a broom factory.
In I Is an Other, James Geary suggests that technological innovations often result from metaphorical thinking, in that they result from combining two things that normally don't go together. While trying to figure out how to stop marine organisms from accumulating on the hulls of ships, Anthony Brennan noticed that "unlike other slow-moving sea creatures, such as whales, sharks aren't bothered much by barnacles. Why not?" He discovered a distinctive micro-diamond pattern on shark skin. Imitating this not only helped hulls of ships but also discouraged bacteria growth on hospital surfaces like nurse call buttons, bed rails and bathroom doors (pp. 204-5).
Some psychologists help patients expand on their own metaphors not only to understand what and how they are feeling but to explore underlying causes and move toward cures. One adolescent regularly used "red" imagery to describe his anger and "blue" to talk about when he was cooler and more in control. Taking this cue, he and his counselor were able to focus on building more "blue" places, people and activities into his routine. (pp. 219-20).
I've blogged previously about how successful book titles often do what metaphors do--combine the familiar with the unfamiliar to grab attention and communicate more fully than literal language is able to do. You'd expect metaphors to be part of publishing. But as Geary has shown, metaphors are important and effective in a wide range of activities.
You already use metaphors without realizing it. Do it consciously, no matter what you are up to, and you'll be happier than a gymnast in zero gravity.