Metaphors Provide a Shortcut To “Yes.” – by Jim Signorelli

I recently heard Ellen Degeneres describe people who talk too much. “Being with people like this,” she said, “is like being on a highway without exit signs when you have to pee.”

Back in the day, when I used to wear ties to work, a colleague once asked me, “Why do all of yours look like Walt Disney sneezed on your shirt?”

I have a friend who is a whiz at Trivial Pursuit and describes herself as “the Imelda Marcos of facts nobody cares about.”

Metaphors, analogies, and similes (herein they will all be lumped together as metaphors for the sake of simplicity) are very powerful tools for turning an ordinary expression into something extraordinary. And for sales professionals or anyone who depends on their ability to influence others, they can provide the quickest route to “Yes!”

Metaphors do for speech what Photoshop does for pictures. They add an emotional layer to facts. They simplify, clarify and allow audiences to visualize abstractions. They engage listeners and aid recall. And for all these reasons, and more, metaphors add the needed swing speed to drive home any message.

Here are just some quick examples of how metaphors might give words more muscle in various business situations.

The Elevator Speech: Instead of telling someone you’re in quality control, you might be like the guy who looks for the penny in the pile of dimes. If you’re in R&D, you might refer to yourself as the company’s taste tester. When asked to describe what an advertising agency does, I would sometimes jokingly explain that we are the epicenter for all blame (and sometimes not so jokingly).

For Framing Product Benefits: Instead of talking about time-savings, you might say that your product allows a company to run longer distances without getting winded. If you’re selling improved ROI potential, it might be that your product finds profits buried under big rocks. Perhaps your product helps control spending. But what if you said it was like liability leak detector.

For Technical Explanations: Instead of referring to RAM as a computer’s ability to access programs that are running, what if you referred to it as a the number of plates a computer can keep spinning. Your unique SEO techniques could be compared to making a website’s voice the loudest in a crowd, or a way to add even more squeak to your squeaky wheel.

Whether or not these are the right metaphors to use for purposes I’ve identified, it should be clear that metaphors have unlimited potential expressing ideas simply, memorably and even entertainingly. 

Coming up with metaphors
Metaphors fall into two piles. First, there are the “ stand by’s, sometimes called cliches. These are metaphors that have lost meaning from overuse, i.e. “His head was spinning like a top when I gave him the bad news,’ “they shot down my proposal,” they “lit up like a Christmas tree when she talked about the bonus program.” These may help you to clarify what you are talking about, but they hardly do much to engage listeners or wake them up to new, more identifiable perspectives.

The opposite of the stand-by metaphor is one that stands out. If you were to think of information in terms of waves coming at you, the highest, most forceful waves are the one’s that stand out metaphors create. You know you’ve heard one when a wave hits you with a perfect and original connection to something else with which you are familiar.

Coming up with stand out metaphors can be challenging. However, there are any number of techniques you can employ that are not within the scope of this article. For more information there are plenty of metaphor resources and lists you can Google for inspiration. Archive them in a metaphor file with Evernote or some other note taking program.

One of the simplest techniques that I have found useful for coming up with metaphors is a brainstorming trick. Simply write down on the left side of a sheet of paper all the things you or your product does. Then on the other side write down people, places or things that do something similar. Don’t edit anything. Just free associate as many comparative actions as you can that match specific actions you or your product performs. I sometimes rely on Google images, famous quotes or a thesaurus to trigger thoughts. Sooner or later you are certain to find a stand out metaphor that is original and relevant. If you’re not sure of the fit, test it out on different people and gauge reactions. If you get a “huh?” throw it out. But if you see eyebrows go up, and a smiles coming across faces, you’ll know you have a winner.

However you arrive at them, coming up with stand-out metaphors are well worth the effort that goes into creating them.


Jim Signorelli is the Founder and President of Story-Lab,

Right out of college, Jim’s first job was selling commercial time for a small radio country radio station. It was tough sledding, but soon Jim discovered that clients were more interested in having memorable, talked-about commercials than they were in the radio station running them. So while competitors were selling their superior audience ratings, Jim began selling ideas. After having won a number of awards for his work, clients began to insist on buying from him, which led to a successful 35-year career in advertising. From writing commercials for the likes of Ma & Pa Supermarket, Jim has created advertising for iconic brands like McDonald’s, Kraft Foods, General Electric, Buger King, and Citibank, to name just a few.

Today, Jim is the President and Founder of Story-Lab. In this capacity, he continues to create advertising. But in addition, he helps leaders and sales professionals influence, inspire and motivate others through business storytelling.  Having written two award-winning books on the power of story as a sales tool, Jim is in high demand as a keynote and workshop moderator. You can connect with Jim at LinkedIn and Twitter, or reach him at 312-545-4903.