There is a little known technique that is one of the most effective means of communication; whether you need to explain an intricate concept, persuade someone to your way of thinking, or ease a disagreement. The technique is the use of metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison of two things that are not the same, but share similar characteristics. For the grammar nerds out there, a similar term is a simile. A simile is a type of metaphor that uses the phrase “is like” in the comparison. “My heart is like an open book” is a simile. “I am steaming mad” is a metaphor. All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes. But let’s get back to practical application.
I have often mentioned in my columns that the brain’s least efficient function is data processing. The parts of the brain that handle what is called executive thinking—judging information, organizing it, and storing it—were the last to evolve in the human brain. Judging by the behavior of some people I see in the stands at sporting events, the evolution is still not complete. Because these areas were the last to evolve, their functions don’t come naturally to us. No matter how adept you might be at processing information or evaluating facts and figures, your brain doesn’t participate in that exercise naturally, or willingly. Ask the brain to process too much data and it will simply shut down. How soon the shut-down occurs depends on the individual. An actuary can stay focused for hours while analyzing the cost-benefit of insuring a teen-aged driver with three multiple-vehicle accidents on his record. I, on the other hand, start to check out the moment my account says, “I have something for you to read.”
On the flip side (a metaphor), the brain’s most efficient function is also one of its default mechanisms; pattern recognition. The brain seeks patterns all day, every day because patterns ensure survival. Patterns of behavior—or habits—help us perfect skills; and following habitual behavior is less stressful than trying something new. These two disparate brain functions dictate how we accept or reject new information. If you are trying to explain a concept that is difficult for me to understand, but one that is familiar to you, you are likely to rattle off a string of statistics. You use data to try to prove your point, thinking that if I get enough information thrown at me I will eventually give in and admit that you are right. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more data you shove at me, the quicker my brain will wave the white flag (metaphor) and start day-dreaming about that slice of cheesecake I left in the fridge that I hope my wife doesn’t get to before I do.
Metaphors are better at creating understanding because they access the pattern-recognition part of the brain. Because the brain likes patterns and hates data, it is easier for the brain to remember something old than to imagine something new. (Imagining, in this case, refers only to imagining the concept you are forcing upon me, not the fanciful daydreaming kind of imagining.) Imagination requires processing, however memories are simply patterns set in the brain’s neural network. If I said, “This new policy is better for you because it provides a 3% higher return than the national average, due to an accrued interest based on the basis point of…” the listener will smile and nod her head, but not know what you are talking about. If, however, you said, “Policy A is like driving a Porsche; it will get you there faster, but sports cars get in more accidents. Policy B is like driving an eighteen-wheel truck; it will carry more stuff and get you there safely, but it’s not as much fun.” the concept is clear, and more easily understood.
The magic of metaphors is that they not only make concepts easier to understand, they make them easier to agree with. When people get a light-bulb moment (another metaphor), they tend to agree with you. Sudden realization, or enlightenment, is accompanied by a release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released when we experience pleasure (food, sex, or when a police officer says, “I’ll let you off with a warning this time.”). Dopamine also controls the flow of information in our cognitive system. So a release of dopamine not only makes learning pleasurable, it makes it more mentally efficient. And we tend to agree with people who make us feel good.
To make metaphors effective, you must tie the comparison to something with which the listener is familiar. Using a fishing metaphor is useless with someone who has never picked up a rod and reel. Take a look at all the information you have to share when talking to others. Almost every concept can be broken down to a simple metaphor. Doing so will make the conversation shorter (metaphors take much less time than detailed explanation), and will make agreement a piece of cake (one last metaphor).
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.