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.
“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.
“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, 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.