Metaphorical food for thought – Metaphors make magic in the mind. That’s what my dad told me.

I was never quite the apple of his eye. Dad’s carrot and stick version of personal leadership stuck in my throat. He said that one man’s metaphor is another man’s cliché and what a nightmare that can be!

The foundation of my story lies in the ruins of an engineer’s past. The bricks fly thick and fast and I’ll lay it on with a trowel. I’ll dig deep and build it up knowing that the sky’s the limit for metaphor.

When I use the word metaphor, my interpretation encompasses similes, analogies, stories, anecdotes, jokes, tales, parables and the Bible. Christianity evolved some 2000 years ago and the Bible’s parables have fueled the devotion and interest of Christians everywhere. The Bible is mostly metaphorical and it stands the test of time. Metaphors endure in the mind because the mind sees in pictures, not words. Plato’s cave metaphor endures equally well (although less well known perhaps). Life is a journey and we stumble across many metaphors along its path. All the world is a stage, is it not?

The Heart of Transformation

Psychologists and neurologists tell us that we use metaphors to make sense of our lives. Metaphors are absorbed directly by the subconscious mind and they are the tool of choice for hypnotists and therapists. For me, as a change worker, they help dissipate the fog around errant thinking, help iron out the wrinkles and bring home the bacon. Small changes upstream can have a profound impact on the flow downstream. The source of the problem is always found upstairs, the changes or improvements are found in more successful behaviours and outcomes and metaphor is at the heart of transformation.

In this article, I want to focus on the ‘story’ because the metaphorical impact of the story is powerful beyond measure. Terry Pratchett famously said, ‘The story gets the job done as it wraps the point up succinctly.’ The first story I remember was the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, by Aesop. That story, like an elevator, works at many levels. So let’s dive into the story as the metaphor of choice for transformation and relate it to a context which is familiar to us all.

Metaphorical Food for Thought – The Main Course

A long time ago in a distant land, (the USA) lived a mythologist and academic called Joseph Campbell. He wrote a book called ‘The hero with a thousand faces’ and his assertion was that all cultures from around the world maintained a story which he defined as the “hero’s quest”. Homer’s Illiad for example has a call to adventure, supernatural aid, a no-going-back threshold, mentors, helpers, transformation and the all-important return journey.

Campbell’s book created great interest in a man from Hollywood called George Lucas who connected the dots and dreamed up a brilliant idea. $7.4 billion later, ‘Star Wars’ was a peach of an idea, the cream of the crop you might say. Every day people relate to the characters and the journey. Young girls relate to Princess Leia and young men relate to Luke Skywalker. As a middle-aged man I related to helper Han Solo and as an older man, I relate to mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. Lots of people relate to Darth Vader as their boss or the person standing in the way of their personal or professional growth.

Something’s Cooking in the Kitchen

Last week I worked with a chef, a highly talented man who runs an elite catering company in Bristol. He has a shed load of prestigious clients. Strong sales, but not stellar, he said (good metaphor). He and his family must move to a larger and more comfortable house. His wife has a minor disability and his two children (a boy and a girl) need separate rooms. In his mind, he must be the ‘daddy’ hero who transforms his family’s life. But there is a problem, a dangerous and uncertain journey ahead. He finds himself in mental turmoil because his career is on the wrong trajectory. He’s stuck in a hole – going nowhere. He’s in a stew. ‘Public speaking’, he said. ‘is not a piece of cake and drives me bananas.’ I agreed with him and expressed the desire that our collaboration should be fruitful.

A Pleasing Dessert

He waded through the opening of his speech as if he was wearing diving boots in treacle, and he couldn’t make it gel. Too many unrelated facts and figures peppered with sound-bites. It was indigestible. It’s hard to resist mixed metaphors, they’re so delicious.

My feedback suggested that his speech should be structured like a fine dining experience comprising a starter, a main course and a dessert, with a little fine wine and discourse to transition the servings. All the ingredients were present but I wasn’t sure about the recipe for success. We needed to spice it up and drop the memorised lists and tell a personal story that created trust and demonstrated his strengths. Change was on the menu. That isomorphic metaphor was unpalatable, but he really lapped it up.

Save the Best for Last

The icing on the cake was his personal story where he graduated as an Engineer and worked on large infrastructure projects. His work demanded customer safety, attention to detail and meticulous preparation. Two years later after his exile to a work’s caravan on the fringe of the frozen North, he decided that engineering was not his calling. Food technology had sparked his interest and now consumed his every thought.

Because he sees himself as an artisan he could not see the bridge that spanned his two careers. A chef requires extensive research for the provenance of fantastic ingredients, attention to detail and precision delivery instruments. I talked about the tools of his craft and then about the tools of persuasion and he saw the parallels.

We discussed the importance of what we say and what we don’t say. His audience would infer that his successful style and methods were down to the meticulous execution of a detailed plan (a hidden metaphor (a Trojan Horse) possibly).

Wrap It Up in a Bow

Metaphors are ubiquitous and you weave them into the fabric of your story (which is a metaphor within a metaphor (a metastory)). Here’s the truth, you can have your cake and eat it because it’s metaphorical food for thought at its best.

Vince Stevenson is the founder of the College of Public Speaking and works in the UK and around the world helping people overcome their fear of public speaking and crafting stories that sell.

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Vince is a well-known speaker/trainer and has won a number of awards for leadership, education and development. He is a founder of the College of Public Speaking and works as Education Director managing all aspects of course delivery and content.