By Marc Innegraeve
Getting your message across is important in business and especially in communicating change to your people. But facts and figures are often difficult for everyone to understand. Hard data needs interpretation and is often difficult to remember. People need clear messages that are easy to understand and reach their hearts and minds. This is where metaphors become useful.
July 1988, a huge explosion turns the oil rig Piper Alpha in a ball of flame and smoke and splits the rig in 2 pieces. 166 People, including 2 rescuers, died in the disaster, but miraculously 63 crew members survived. One of the survivors, Andy Mochan, a superintendent on the rig, was interviewed in the hospital and said: “It was fry or jump, so I jumped.” Jumping off the burning platform saved his life. It became the metaphor that has been used often in business communication to indicate the sense of urgency leading to the need for change.
Skilled leaders use metaphors to encourage visual thinking. When metaphors are well chosen, they are easy to understand, and they make the message behind it more acceptable. The right story also makes it easy for people to connect emotionally to the upcoming changes in the organization.
I would recommend against using metaphors where you try to have a one-on-one relationship between the metaphor and the situation. For example, where a family with 3 children is represented by a captain, a mate and 3 sailors. In NLP, we call these isomorphic metaphors. Those communications often come across as fake and obnoxious. It’s a lot better to use real stories of similar situations that takes people onto an emotional journey and helps the listener to reach solutions on the emotional level. These we call homomorphic metaphors.
A good metaphor explains a situation and its’ solution in simple terms and is built upon imagery that people can connect with.
This means that you, as a communicator, better start collecting real stories that will help you in different situations and the place to start is your own experience. Is there anything more credible than the hurdles and situations that you’ve conquered (or didn’t conquer) yourself? If you worry about your own vulnerability when you disclose your own experience, remember that this is exactly how you can build trust with your team.
Give a boy a hammer and the whole world becomes a nail. In the same way, metaphors should become a tool in your portfolio of communication skills, but not the only tool. Metaphors are a contributing element in corporate storytelling and narratives. Good metaphors have a longer lifespan than just one presentation and can even be part of the culture of an organization, a department or your team. Choose them wisely!