3 metaphors about (paying) attention 👀

Metaphor Map #13

Hey friend 👋

Welcome to Metaphor Map! Every week, I find and share three metaphors that you can remix to improve how you communicate your ideas.

Today, we’re highlighting metaphors that liven up a sometimes tired subject: attention. 

As always, if something struck a chord with you (good or bad!) let me know in the comments below or by replying to this email.

The way we talk about attention is cheap. 

Well, sometimes it’s expensive.

What persists is the metaphor: attention is currency, paying attention is an investment, and being attentive must reap returns. 

Mads Holmen, Founder and CEO of Bibblio has written that we’ve reached “peak attention,” what he calls “the moment when there’s so much competition for your attention that it reaches a saturation point. When there is no more time to spare."

Not only have we reached peak attention, we’ve reached peak discussion-about-attention. This isn’t because we’ve written everything there is to write about attention (that certainly isn’t true).

But we’ve run out of ways to write about attention effectively. We’ve saturated the attention discourse with cliches and worn out coins.

In this issue, I’m highlighting three writers who think about attention in different terms: a baseball pitcher turned memoirist, a physicist, and a trio of IT experts. 

1. Antenna

“Before my control problem, I had the ability to just concentrate on the immediate task at hand, which is a wonderful thing for an athlete. I could block out family, world hunger, or anything that was going on, because of that focus. That focus all went away, and everything was occurring in my mind. I was like an antenna.”

- Steve Blass, A Pirate for Life

Steve Blass, former pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, writes here about what it felt like to pitch. 

First, he is literal. He describes his attention in terms of concentration and focus, a beam that spotlights the pitch. This kind of attention pushed aside local issues, like his family, and global issues, like world hunger. 

Second, he turns to simile. A literal description is too abstract. Ironically, the reader’s attention drifts. How focused is he, really? What does it really mean for the mind to attend that closely?

That’s when he uses simile: he is like an antenna. This paragraph is all compound sentences and stacks of descriptions. That last sentence interrupts the flow--both because it’s short and punctual, and because it’s a comparison instead of a descriptor. 

He arrests your reading eye and focuses your attention on this simile. Suddenly, you too are like an antenna, sensitive to what you just read, absorbing the information and the meaning and the mood. 

This is when similes and metaphors get really effective--when you, as a reader, feel the comparison the writer is drawing. 

Let’s riff on this a little. 

🎸 Her attention came to a fine point, like the end of the sharp pencil she held, hovering over the text. Editing required her to push away everything else she might think about so she could think of one thing: the words in front of her. She was like an antenna. 

🎸 I always prefer a recorder. Some reporters scratch out notes as their interviewees speak, but I can’t split my attention like that. Instead, I flip on my recorder. It captures the exact words, the quotes, the references, the details. I have a different role. I turn my head slightly to the side, my eyes close, my ear angles to the words coming toward them. I’m an antenna.

Stop your readers. Focus their attention on what you want them to focus on. Metaphors and similes are the best way to create a pause and capture that pause. 

2. Glasses

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.”

- Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions

Albert Einstein, famous, of course, for his contributions to physics, was also a deep thinker about matters outside of science. 

In this excerpt, he critiques people who read only from writers of their current time. According to Einstein (wow, that’s an authoritative-sounding clause), readers who only read from contemporary writers are limited to the perspectives of their era. Their knowledge depends on the ebb of the social tide, the forces that shape the readers they read. 

Einstein has the problem here of making this claim feel real. At first glance, it’s easy to doubt. Isn’t there a vast diversity of perspectives available at any given time?

Einstein defeats this objection by framing his argument in a metaphor. 

People who read only contemporary writers are two things: near-sighted and scornful. This metaphor is effective because he frames his argument physically and emotionally. 

He compares these readers to people with a visual impairment but vaults them out of innocence by projecting a scornfulness. The solution (reading books beyond your time) is readily available but the target of his ire doesn’t use what’s in front of them.

Let’s see what we can get by riffing.

🎸 Somebody who only consults with people who resemble him looks to me like someone who’s stubbornly unaware they wear glasses. What they see right in front of them stands stark and clear, but everything to the periphery is a blur. If only they acknowledged their glasses and took them off once in a while and saw that their frames gave them only one perspective.

🎸 Someone who only works with people in their field looks to me like someone who is far sighted but too ignorant to wear glasses. They have a vision of where they’re going and all the people who will take them there but all around them is a blur. Every alternative path is unclear and invisible. 

Remember that when you’re making a metaphor, you’re setting the scene and directing the play. Einstein could have just said the people he criticized were nearsighted, but by extending that description into the emotional, he made his argument even more compelling. 

3. Dark matter

“Maybe what I’m looking for is like dark matter. You can only see it by what it displaces or how it interacts with other matter that we can see.”

- Gene Kim, George Spafford, and Kevin Behr, The Phoenix Project 

Gene Kim, George Spafford, and Kevin Behr wrote the book, quite literally, on DevOps. In this book, they apply lessons from auto manufacturing plants to software development. 

The lessons learned from this transplantation come out in the form of a didactic novel, where principles sprout, bud, and flower. Characters struggle against workflows gone wrong and learn to right them with ideas that proved revolutionary in the real world.

In this excerpt, the main character is looking for a cause of chaos in his company’s workflow. Their star employee has put in all the extra hours but they’re further behind than ever. The character is staring at the problem but not seeing it.

This is a classic problem of attention and perception, one that makes this metaphor endlessly useful.

In this case, unplanned work was the dark matter that displaced planned work. It was only visible by studying what it did and what it affected. 

Let’s riff on how else we could use this metaphor.

🎸 Another meeting opened to tense silence. I realized what I was looking for was like dark matter. The mood of one person shaped the atmosphere of the room but I never would have detected it by looking in his face. I had to see everyone else react.

🎸 It was a systemic problem. I could only see it when I realized what I was looking for was like dark matter. Communication delays between our vendors accumulated across each delay, resulting in a seemingly unexplainably slow process. I never would have guessed those tiny delays would be the cause but the effect they had revealed their power.

Watch for this dynamic. Causes often appear invisible but with metaphor, we can make them visible.

With metaphors, we can refresh even the most worn out topics. Don’t let bad writing, cliches, and dull phrases steer you away from the topics that are important to you and your audience. Look to other writers and find ways to talk about the topic anew.

Business writing (that’s actually good) 💼

Metaphor Map #12

Hey friend 👋

Welcome to Metaphor Map! Every week, I find and share three metaphors that you can remix to improve how you communicate your ideas.

Today, we’re highlighting business writing that doesn’t suck. The metaphors in this issue come from a technology writer, a marketer, and an entrepreneur. 

As always, if something struck a chord with you (good or bad!) let me know in the comments below or by replying to this email.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that certain types of metaphors are “worn out,” that they are like “coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” 

This is the end result of novel metaphors decaying into witticisms, cliches, and finally into forgettable, almost meaningless words. 

Business writing is full of worn out coins. Think  “synergy,” “double click on that,” “keep you in the loop,” “growth,” etc. The list is endless. 

The advantage of this dynamic is that there’s ample opportunity to succeed and exceed. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Let’s look to three writers who’ve used metaphors to keep their writing fresh, exciting, and vivid. 

1. Fruit

“When I was at Help Scout, our marketing department wasn’t big enough to justify a dedicated social media team. It was a tack-on responsibility, so for a while we had a strict modus operandi: pursue ideas that wouldn’t take up a lot of time. Such aerially challenged fruit can’t be picked forever.”

- Gregory Ciotti, Content promotion is about meeting your readers where they live

Here, Gregory Ciotti, content marketing lead at Shopify, writes about content promotion. 

Is there a topic business writers are more likely to stuff with worn out coins? Content promotion, and the many guides and tips and lists about it, are brimming with “delight your users,” “encourage viral growth,” “facilitate word of mouth,” and worse. These are all ideas that meant something, at one point, but have since become phrases. Phrases that we pass around to signal “yes, this is indeed an article about content promotion.” 

One of the worst instances is “low hanging fruit.” “Low hanging fruit” is a worn out metaphor that describes easy opportunities--high-leverage and low-effort chances that yield outsized effects. Don’t climb the tree to get fruit that’s already within reach from the ground.

It’s a useful idea. Putting less effort in to achieve the same (or better) results is always a worthy goal. Pursuing those opportunities is a perspective we should always have. 

Here, Ciotti plays a small but effective trick. Rather than reuse the cliche, he re-casts it: “low-hanging” becomes “aerially challenged.” The meaning is the same, but the fresh words cause readers to pause and actually think about what he’s saying.

We can riff on this remixing method:

🎸 Synergy → Our business units move through their respective markets like synchronized swimmers, reflecting each movement and motion as if they were one. That’s our synergy.

🎸 Keep you in the loop → As we expand, we want to ensure we keep each person in the chain. Each part of the chain interlocks, so if we have broken links, one end won’t connect to the other. We can’t have that. 

Recasting cliches like this is in itself an example of low hanging fruit. You don’t always have to create entirely novel metaphors. Find metaphors, even cliches, that mean what you intend and find a way to give them new life. 

2. Trailer

“Moreover, the existence of Amazon and its clear clout in the market rather strongly suggests the European Commission missed the point: market control comes from aggregating customers; Google can’t anymore restrict competition from sites that depend on Google than a car can restrict competition from a trailer it is towing.”

- Ben Thompson, The Anti-Amazon Alliance

Niko Canner, founder of consultancy Incandescent, has written that “Traditional strategy puts the institution in the foreground.” Traditional business writing does the same and fails for similar reasons.

One of the reasons why business writing is hard is because you’re rarely trying to describe businesses; you’re trying to describe systems. Systems consist of inputs, outputs, dynamic, patterns, entities, incentives, and more. 

Think markets, supply chains, regulatory bodies--all intersecting. It’s much easier, temptingly easier, to pretend the world only includes individuals and individual organizations. 

Here, technology writer Ben Thompson analyzes Amazon and Google as parts of systems, rather than as isolated entities. That’s what makes his writing stand out among thousands of other business communicators and makes him one of the most widely read business writers working today.

The complexity of a system is difficult to capture in a word or a sentence. It’s better, as Thompson does here, to use metaphor. Metaphor lets you transport the dynamics of a more familiar system into the less familiar one you’re trying to describe. 

Thompson uses the simple, understandable system of a car towing a trailer to show a similar dynamic playing out in the markets. Google is the car and the sites are the trailer; in a system like this, restricting competition between the two becomes nonsensical. 

Whether you agree with his argument is besides the point. When you line up a metaphor like this and compare one system to another, you can make your argument easy to believe. You can transport the obviousness of the trailer hitched to the car to much more complex market dynamics and your readers will follow along. 

Let’s try to riff on this method: 

🎸 When you push one domino, the rest fall in sequence. While there might be distance between organizations in a supply chain, while they might look different or act differently, an action on the first will carry through to the last. The system is the space in between and the potential energy that exists prior to that first domino falling. 

🎸 Culture problems are viruses. When you’re sick, your condition can get worse and worse on a spectrum from health to death. But what people miss is that there’s a binary along with this spectrum. Either you’re sick or you’re not. So if you want to prevent culture death, you need to watch out for viruses and eliminate them as soon as they appear. You want to stop your culture from getting very sick and from getting infected at all. 

You’re not looking for a metaphor that’s as complex as the thing you’re describing. You’re looking for a metaphor that captures the dynamic you want to highlight. 

3. Metal detector

“I think of it a bit like a metal detector. The feature request is the metal detector going beep beep beep. That is not the information. That shows you that there's information below ground. But you need to dig to get it. So to me, the feature request is the beep beep beep but the follow up questions are how you dig underneath to get to the real insight.”

- Rob Fitzpatrick, The Right Way to Talk to People About Your Business with Rob Fitzpatrick, Author of The Mom Test

Rob Fitzpatrick, entrepreneur and author of The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you, wants you to understand your customers better. 

Here’s one way to do that: pleading. This is where most business communicators go. If they’re nice, they beg; if they’re mean, they shame. Either way, they exclaim “Listen to your users!” and leave you to figure out how.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of articles that do little more than that. 

There’s a better way. Metaphors pierce mere pleading and let readers see the “how” beneath the “what.”

In this interview with Courtland Allen on the Indie Hackers podcast , Fitzpatrick uses the metaphor of a metal detector. When your users request features, according to him, they’re offering a signal, not a message. The message, the insight, the meaning is when you dig below the signal. 

This metaphor works because he transforms an idle idea (listening) into a vivid action (using a metal detector). 

Without metaphor, this would be staid meaning laid on top of staid meaning. With metaphor, it sounds like something you can do. That’s communication that inspires actual action. 

How can we learn from this? 

🎸 Think of it like a hammer. A hammer’s handle practically reaches out to you. When you grasp it, you feel the weight of the hammer’s head and it teaches you how the handle will pivot when you can swing it to connect with the nail. It’s intuitive. Our onboarding flow should be just like that. I want users to load the app and immediately feel that connection. 

🎸 Think of it like a vacuum cleaner. When you’re doing market research, it’s difficult to avoid sucking up chunks of information you can’t do anything with. You need to direct your research so you’re ingesting the types of information you can actually use. Ideally too, you have a backend filter that keeps out all the junk data that would otherwise clog up your workflow. 

If you’re trying to describe a “how,” find something that shares a similar function to what you’re trying to describe. With metaphor, the “how” can rise above the “what” and you can make your deeper ideas understood. 

Business writing doesn’t have to be business as usual. Use metaphor to bring your ideas to life, communicate the meaning you intend, and convince readers to take the action you want.

3 Metaphors About Writing 📝

Metaphor Map #11

Hey, friend! Welcome to Metaphor Map.

This issue features metaphors from a columnist, an author, and a nonfiction writer. We’re focusing on you can use metaphors to describe writing, among other crafts.

Let’s get into it!

It’s a human instinct to want to be understood. It’s nature to want understanding so much that you’ll take pains to describe an idea in multiple ways to properly evoke it. 

Little else inspires that instinct as much as craftsmanship. From the moment a primate affixed a stone to a stick, it was likely trying to figure out how to describe the feeling of swinging the axe (or so I guess. I’m not a biologist). 

In this issue, I’m focusing on the efforts of craftspeople to describe their craft. Specifically, I’m honing in on writers describing writing. 

Metaphors are uniquely translatable. Even if you rarely write about writing, there’s a lot to learn from writers who’ve tried to do the same. 

1. Plumbing

“You are a plumber when you write. A handyman. Writing is a matter of sketching and building and arranging and fixing what is in your brain.”

- Drew Magary, How to Write 10,000 Words a Week

A craft is hard to describe because, as we got into in issue #10, reality has a surprising amount of detail. Here, GEN columnist Drew Magary compares writing to plumbing to make a point about writing really involves. 

From a distance, writing is putting pen to paper. Up close, it involves a multitude of interlocking, conflicting considerations: brainstorming, outlining, editing, thinking, researching, analyzing, etc. etc. 

It goes on and on and the fact that it goes on and on is the point. That “on and on” is where a writer, or any craftsperson makes their living. 

That’s why it’s often best to compare one craft to another. Even though there are countless surface level differences, the level of detail is fundamentally similar. 

We can riff on this and see why this format works.

🎸 You are a sculptor when you write. Writing is all about finding raw material and shaping it to the image you imagine.

🎸 You are a carpenter when you write. Bad writers write, cut, and rewrite endlessly. Good writers measure twice and cut once. 

🎸 You are a mechanic when you edit. Whatever you’ve written is vehicle enough to roll down the hill, turn, and maybe even break. But to make a truly impressive piece of machinery, you need to ensure every piece functions smoothly with the next.

Comparing one profession to another lets you go deeper than the superficial differences to see the fundamental similarities. That’s where understanding lies. 

2. Driving

“Writing is like driving the car, you go to this destination, you're on this adventure. And reading is like filling the car up with gas. And the point of having a gas is not to only fill it up with gas and stay at the station, you have to drive somewhere and go on an adventure at some point. But you do need to stop and refill now and then. If I struggle, and don't have more to write about, then I need to read more. I need to fill up the tank.”

- James Clear, #2: James Clear [Revision]

This metaphor (a simile, technically) is from habit expert and author James Clear. He was a guest on an episode of Creative Elements, a podcast from Jay Clouse. Together, they discussed Clear’s career and the efforts he went to develop an audience and an expert niche.

This is a plainspoken simile (partially due to the speaking format). But its plainspoken simplicity gives it a clarity that many overwritten, overanalyzed metaphors lack. 

Writing is like driving the car. How? Well, it’s a journey. But to make that journey, you need gas: reading. 

Driving is an action anyone can imagine and driving, the act of moving and recovering, is a dynamic anyone can understand. 

The metaphor works because it maps onto that dynamic. It works well because writing is an activity that embodies that dynamic, that requires action, depletion, and action again. 

Consider these riffs:

🎸 Collaborating is like driving the car. You’re driving the conversation forward and carrying all your passengers with you. But silent, individual contemplation is the fuel. Without it, you won’t have anything to talk about.

🎸 Painting is like driving the car. You’re in control of the brush, its direction, and its movement. But appreciating other artists, that’s your fuel. Your store of inspiration will deplete without occasionally feeling wonder at what someone else made. 

You can reuse this metaphor if you find patterns like it. Almost any craft will require action and recovery by way of inspiration. 

3. Static electricity

“A single crowded sentence means giving up all the possible relations 

Among shorter sentences—the friction, the tension, 

The static electricity that builds up between them.”

- Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences about Writing

In his seminal book Several Short Sentences About Writing, American nonfiction author Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about… writing. But the whole book is shot through with the sense that he could fill hundreds more pages with his opinions, analyses, and conclusions.

In this excerpt, he disassembles overly complex sentences. 

Short sentences, according to him, generate an energy akin to static electricity. Ideas, close together, produce friction. Short, powerful sentences swell with that potential energy. The reader reveals and revels in it. 

Long sentences, however, unspool these ideas and let filler leak in. They’re weak, like a boat taking on the water that surrounds it. 

This metaphor works because Klinkenborg evokes something that typically goes unsaid, if not un-thought. 

Good writing feels different from bad writing. Tight writing has something behind it that loose writing doesn’t. Klinkenborg makes that truth visible through metaphor. 

The energy we feel becomes static electricity generated by the friction of short sentences packed with ideas. He encapsulates his point in a vivid image that makes his point more compelling, more memorable, and more believable. 

Every communicator and every professional has cause to describe what they do. The better you can do that, the better you can set your ideas in a context that makes them succeed. 

What you do doesn’t fully describe what you do. Compare the actions you take to things people understand. There’s power in mutual understanding.

📚 How to use metaphors as analytical tools 📚

Metaphor Map #10

Hey, friend! Welcome to Metaphor Map.

This issue features metaphors from a diplomat, a software engineer, and philosophy professor. We’re focusing on you can use metaphors to analyze and explain your best ideas.

Let’s get into it!

I’m always struck when a communicator can tease apart the dense, taut, interlinked ideas of a complex system. Systems are like knots that get tighter the more we play with them. Untying them into separate ideas that we can see, understand, and analyze is a feat. 

Metaphors (you’ll be unsurprised to discover, since you’re reading this newsletter) are a great way of getting a grip on these ideas. 

The trouble with using metaphors is that explaining your knowledge takes different work than gathering it. Laying out all your research on a blanket of wares won’t draw any buyers. 

Instead, you have to swallow some of that investment, find the dynamic that pulses inside the system, and explain that first and foremost. That pulse provides the rhythm a reader can move to, a beat that makes the rest of the story feel coherent. 

Metaphor is your way of making that pulse felt, your way of making that system sensible.

Let’s look at three communicators who used metaphors as analytical tools and see what we can learn from them.

1. Paint

“The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time, one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through.”

- Alexis-Charles-Henri de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Systems are emergent. 

It’s hard to describe systems partially because they always consist of multiple systems emerging at once. A superficial thinker notices this fact but swats away the possibility of insight, leaving the system an unanalyzed mass of other systems. 

It’s so easy to do this you might not even notice yourself doing it. It’s easy for a system to appear as one thing, rather than many things. That’s one reason, of many, why it’s so important to return to brilliant minds like Tocqueville’s.

Here, 19th century French Diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville, takes turpentine to America’s appearance. 

Remember, at the time of writing, we’re not too far off from the American Revolution. When Tocqueville writes of aristocratic colors, he can likely see them much more vividly than we can. 

That isn’t to insult him. Tocqueville actually demonstrates the power of metaphor because he analyzes American society in such a way that the truth of his analysis can last hundreds of years.

To this day, if you look closely, you can see the aristocratic colors breaking through the democratic paint. That dynamic persists. By identifying it and explaining it via metaphor, Tocqueville created an idea so durable that it’s legible hundreds of years later. 

You could describe the colors of a past system breaking through the paint of a current system without adjusting anything but the targets of your analysis and the sentence would be just as true. 

Let’s riff on it a little to see if that’s right.

🎸 The new managers painted the company with a flat organizational model, but the old hierarchical model still breaks through.

🎸 The team presented a new way of doing research to a group of at first skeptical, but eventually enthusiastic, professors. But the professors soon learned they were naive. The new way painted over the old way, but the paint peeled up as you worked, refusing to adhere to the surface. The old way kept breaking through and you had to paint it over again, the next layer thicker and even more prone to peeling. 

Look for dynamics where the new is emerging from the old. Maybe the new isn’t as solid as it first appears. Look closer and find where the old breaks through. 

2. Basement stairs

“Consider building some basement stairs for a moment. Stairs seem pretty simple at first … But as you actually start building you’ll find there’s a surprising amount of nuance.

The first thing you’ll notice is that there are actually quite a few subtasks. Even at a high level, you have to cut both ends of the 2x12s at the correct angles; then screw in some u-brackets to the main floor to hold the stairs in place; then screw in the 2x12s into the u-brackets; then attach the angle brackets for the stairs; then screw in the stairs.

Next you’ll notice that each of those steps above decomposes into several steps, some of which have some tricky details to them due to the properties of the materials and task and the limitations of yourself and your tools. ...

At every step and every level there’s an abundance of detail with material consequences.

It’s tempting to think ‘So what?’ and dismiss these details as incidental or specific to stair carpentry. And they are specific to stair carpentry; that’s what makes them details. But the existence of a surprising number of meaningful details is not specific to stairs. Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.”

- John Salvatier, Reality has a surprising amount of detail

Metaphors come up often in good analyses. As you dissect the world into finer and finer details, you find patterns that persist across seemingly different things.

Sometimes, the best way to finding a good metaphor is to burrow deep into the details of a particular practice, entity, or structure. If you go deep enough, you’ll find a detail that other practices, entities, or structures share.

And there’s your metaphor, waiting for you.

Here, software engineer and artificial intelligence researcher John Salvatier takes apart the process of building basement stairs. 

Salvatier finds a truth that he can generalize. Building a staircase has myriad details that aren’t apparent until you get up close and personal. What else is like this? Well, everything.

In a metaphor like this, the point is the journey, the analysis. Stating the conclusion (“reality is detailed”) leaves the insight unremarkable and forgettable. Instead, he walks the reader to the insight. This vector of discovery doubles as a metaphor. 

He describes Process X. He finds Y Truth in Process X. Now, Process X is Metaphor Z and we can apply it to all sorts of things. 

I’ll only riff once here because the magic comes from just how specific it is.

Salvatier goes so deep he leaves you with some real knowledge about building staircases. To find truths worthy of analysis and metaphor, you’ll have to go that deep too. The riff here is only a gesture in that direction.

🎸 Consider playing a video game. If the button presses required to defeat the boss were merely that series of buttons, no one would ever learn them. But game developers tie those buttons to actions that occur in the game and then that dynamic, that alchemy, convinces 12 year olds to ingest hundreds of patterns and instincts as muscle memory. Everything you’ve ever learned was never just the knowledge, plain and simple. There was a game to learning it, whether you noticed you were playing or not. 

This is a weighty tool to use. Make sure you give this method space to work. We’re not looking for bland analogies here.

Find truth in the particular and you’ll find truths in the universe. 

3. Thermometer

“The method of believing whatever one’s social surroundings tell one to believe is not reliable. So, when I learn about the social influences on my belief, I learn that I’ve formed my beliefs using an unreliable method. If it turns out that my thermometer produces its readings using an unreliable mechanism, I cease to trust the thermometer. Similarly, learning that my beliefs were produced by an unreliable process means that I should cease to trust them too. 

But in the hypothetical example, do I really hold that my beliefs were formed by an unreliable mechanism? ... 

The thermometer analogy, then, is inapt. Learning that I would have believed differently if I’d been raised by a different community is not like learning that my thermometer is unreliable. It’s more like learning that my thermometer came from a store that sells a large number of unreliable thermometers. But the fact that the store sells unreliable thermometers doesn’t mean I shouldn’t trust the readings of my particular thermometer. After all, I might have excellent reasons to think that I got lucky and bought one of the few reliable ones.”

- Miriam Schoenfield, Why do you believe what you do? Run some diagnostics on it

Metaphors aren’t perfect. They never are.

When you use them, you’re saying one thing is another thing to highlight all the aspects in which they are similar and aren’t similar. The very purpose of using them proves they’re wrong.

Of course X isn’t actually Y; it’s X. 

When you’re using metaphors as analytical tools, don’t be afraid to take them to and past this breaking point.

A broken metaphor can be just as useful as an unbroken one.

Here, philosophy professor Miriam Schoenfield compares her beliefs to readings from a thermometer. She focuses on the different reactions we’d have to using them.

If a thermometer has an unreliable mechanism, you don’t trust the data it provides. If a belief has an unreliable mechanism, however, she claims, you might still trust the belief. You don’t throw it away like you would a thermometer (or any other tool).

That’s an interesting idea. But Schoenfield goes for more than interesting.

Her analysis takes her beyond the limits of her initial metaphor.

Unreliable beliefs are not just like unreliable thermometers, she decides. Forming unreliable beliefs is like buying a thermometer from a store known to have unreliable wares. There has to be a chance that your thermometer, or your belief, despite its origins in something broadly unreliable, just happens to be true in your case.

As readers, we learn more from the breaking of this metaphor than we would from being presented with the facts.

Taking the metaphor to its breaking point makes the similarities and differences she wants to highlight stand out in even greater contrast.

Let’s riff on how we might do something like this too.

🎸 To survive in a toxic work environment is to tread water. You’re paddling and expending energy as if you’re going somewhere, and yet you’re making no progress. But perhaps that comparison doesn’t get to the heart of it. A toxic work environment is worse than the gravitational pull. It’s more like a riptide that tries to drag you out to the ocean to drown. It’s tricky because swimming against it is pointless. You have to swim away from it, at the right angle, to escape. 

This kind of writing models the learning required to make this kind of analysis. Modeling your thought process via metaphor makes it as digestible as it is compelling.

The world will resist your attempts to communicate it. Ideas, especially once they’re taken up by systems, will resist simple explanation. Metaphors are one way in and if you use them well, your insight will be as powerful as it is true. 

📚 3 ways to make your writing vivid 📚

Metaphor Map #9

Hey friend and welcome to Metaphor Map!

This issue features metaphors from an entertainment reporter, a product evangelist, and a psychotherapist. 

Vividness isn’t the exclusive domain of novelists. Good writing is vivid--even if you’re preparing a presentation, creating a report, or pitching a product. 

A vivid idea is an idea with handholds. When ideas aren’t vivid, readers and listeners reach for the ideas but can’t find purchase. At best, they see the idea and it slips from memory later; at worst, they hold and inspect it, but they can’t understand it. 

Let’s look at three ways different people have used metaphors to make their ideas vivid. 

1. Flies

“And yet, when I wake up, I don’t feel as sluggish as I normally do. I find it easier to get out of bed. The intrusive thoughts that normally buzz around my brain like flies on a feeding frenzy have disappeared… Despite everything, I realize, I am OK. More OK than I have been in years. That’s a strange thing to admit. But evidently I’m not alone.”

- Laura Bradley, If You Have Anxiety and Depression but Feel Better During Coronavirus, You’re Not Alone

Entertainment reporter Laura Bradley writes about the odd sensation many people with chronic depression and anxiety have felt since the start of this pandemic. 

There’s an eerie calm to quarantine, a sense that the anxious rhythms of the world have finally met your pace. There’s comfort, strange comfort, in that.

Bradley is writing to an audience that knows this feeling and to an audience that doesn’t. Both require a vivid description to understand the before-times and the after-times. Otherwise, we are left with nebulous, sterile terms: anxiety, nervousness, less anxious, less nervous. It’s not enough. 

Verlyn Klinkenborg, author of Several Short Sentences About Writing warns frequently about the boring danger of noun phrases. According to him, turning verbs (to think) into nouns (thought) “depletes their energy” and leaves it “incapable of action.” 

You can use the verb form to recover that energy or as Bradley does, you can turn to metaphor. 

Thoughts aren’t merely intrusive; they intrude like flies, like frenzied flies finding food. Bradley makes these thoughts vivid by injecting a metaphor that has the energy of a verb (the flies flying and buzzing) where there would normally be one of those inert nouns. 

Let’s riff on this a little. We’re looking for two things: nouns that would otherwise feel inert and descriptors that would fit the metaphor we’re using.

🎸 He could shrug off criticism. But these critiques were flies on a feeding frenzy, buzzing in his face despite his attempts to swat them.

🎸 The report was full of errors. “Full” didn’t even begin to describe it. The errors were flies on a feeding frenzy, devouring whatever truth might have been there, and leaving the report a husk.  

Buzzing flies is only one way to handle this dynamic. There are a million opportunities out there to use metaphors like this. 

Look for nouns that aren’t vivid enough. Either replace them with a verb or a metaphor that has the energy of a verb. 

2. Blast radius

“We should be open to the idea that we cannot control everything, and that on a daily basis there’s a ton going on that we will not know about. Someone might do something that impacts your world, and that is OK . Assuming positive intent is critical. That said, for the person running the experiment it is vital to be sympathetic to the blast radius of your work (and perception of your work). Communicate. Give people some notice.”

- John Cutler, Some MVP and Experiment Tips

John Cutler is a product evangelist at Amplitude, a company that provides product analytics. He writes about project and product management with a deep sense of empathy for how teams do work and how teams can work. 

Here, he writes about experimentation. This excerpt is balancing two points about experimentation: be open to a little chaos and be careful about the chaos you might cause. 

The tension between the two is right on the surface. 

Simply saying this isn’t enough. 

Asking people to have empathy is notoriously ineffective. To make this point vivid, Cutler uses the metaphor “blast radius.” This metaphor works because it supports the chaos he warns about previously. 

Just like a meteor or a missile has a point of impact that is known but a radius of damage that isn’t, so does an experiment have a target and a range of effects. The blast radius metaphor makes vivid the fact that having a target--and hitting it--doesn’t belie the secondary effects such an act might have. 

To riff on this metaphor, we just need to step back and think of things that have secondary effects. 

🎸 The budget cuts were severe. Management thought they could isolate the effects by laying off employees in one department, but they underestimated the blast radius of this department’s decimation. Morale dropped company-wide.

🎸 Once she hit publish, she knew Twitter would be aflame. But she cared more about the blast radius than the first impact. Her first readers would be shocked, upset, confused; the readers that came after, the ones who heard the explosion, were the ones she cared about. 

Secondary effects can be good and bad. Look for the dynamic and see if you can apply this metaphor.

3. Scouts

“These gray bristles were, he knew, the advance scouts of a relentless, wintry invasion. And there would be no stopping the march of the hours, the days, the years.”

- Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept

When Nietzsche Wept is an early 90s novel from Stanford psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom. In this short excerpt, he writes about age. 

Aging is so slow that it’s nearly imperceptible. We know what an old person looks like and what a young person looks like but describing the process between the two is difficult. 

Is it the appearance change? A shift in emotional maturity? An ache in a place that used to be pain-free?

Age is just one of those ideas that’s too big and too abstract to encompass. Instead, as Yalom does here, it’s better to evoke one aspect of it vividly enough that the rest of the concept comes with it. Here, Yalom focuses on appearance.

The metaphor is two-fold: the gray bristles become advance scouts and age becomes a wintry invasion. This metaphor is especially effective because Yalom specifies the season of the invasion, evoking the whiteness of the whiskers alongside the whiteness of snow. 

The dynamic here is of an early sign that indicates a larger change. 

Consider riffs like these:

🎸 The team was chagrined to receive its first negative review. But the comments seemed baseless, biased almost, they thought. And so they ignored it. Little did they know that this first criticism was an advance scout for an invasion of other problems. 

🎸 I’ve always been confident. In every job interview and every subsequent acceptance and promotion, I touted that as my greatest skill. I advanced fast. So fast I didn’t see the mistakes accumulating in my periphery. Before I knew it, my confidence was collapsing in an invasion of self-doubt: if only I had caught the advance scouts before it was upon me.

Don’t waste an opportunity to make your ideas vivid. 

You’re too close to your ideas when you’re thinking them through. It’s hard to know just how foreign they’ll appear to a reader who’s never thought in that way before. 

To leave an impression, try using a metaphor that makes your ideas vivid.

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