How metaphors can make your ideas memorable 📚 Metaphor Map #8

Via Clots, Corks, and Sandcastles

Hey friend, welcome to Metaphor Map!

In this issue, I’m introducing 🎸Riffs🎸. The feedback I’m getting so far is showing that people want to more readily use these metaphors in their writing, in their consulting, and in their marketing copy. 

It’s easy to admire someone’s writing but hard to learn from it. Riffs make that easy by modeling how you can adapt these metaphors to your own purposes. 

Let me know what you think!

As a knowledge worker, your work depends on two things: your ability to

  1. Make a point

  2. Make that point memorable

Putting together an intelligent, thoughtful, useful argument is only half the battle (maybe not even half). The other half is how you package it. 

Successful arguments make points that are as vivid as they are true. 

This issue highlights three metaphors that these writers use to make their points stand out. These metaphors come from Roy Peter Clark, a teacher of writing; Mark Twain, a 19th century American writer; and Matt Taibbi, a journalist. 

1. Clot

“Never clot a bunch of numbers in a single paragraph; or worse, three paragraphs. Readers don’t learn that way.”

- Roy Peter Clark, How to make hard facts easy to read

Roy Peter Clark advises writers here to not use too many numbers in too little a space. Gathering numbers can make you feel like you’re gathering objectivity but you’re more likely losing clarity. That point is simple but important and to make sure you remember it, Clark uses the metaphor clot

Most writing advice resembles a reprimand. Instead, Clark uses a blood metaphor to evoke the flow you want and the clot you’re introducing--the narrative and the numerical obstruction. The metaphor evokes what you want and shows you what you’ll have instead, if you don’t listen. His point is hard to forget. 

Think about all the other kinds of information that are supposed to flow but instead clot. This dynamic is everywhere if you look for it. 

🎸 Your sales pitch is clotted with facts. You need to let the narrative flow.

🎸 I get nervous before a presentation. It’s like all the words clot together and I can’t get them out.

🎸 Knowledge clots in companies with silos. When people don’t feel comfortable collaborating across departments, information feels like something they should guard instead of share. 

2. Cork

“It was a hard blow to poor Sellers to see the work on his darling enterprise stop, and the noise and bustle and confusion that had been such refreshment to his soul, sicken and die out. It was hard to come down to humdrum ordinary life again after being a general superintendent and the most conspicuous man in the community… He was a cork that could not be kept under the water many moments at a time.”

- Mark Twain, The Gilded Age

In this excerpt, Mark Twain compares a man with irrepressible energy to a cork that refuses to stay underwater. Twain writes vividly about the fall of this character but when he has to describe something more ethereal--his vibe, his energy--he reaches for metaphor.

Good metaphors can cohere a series of literal descriptions. The previous sentences are direct and the words simple. To make them leave a trace, Twain recasts and captures them in the image of a cork. A stubborn cork poking above the water surfaces a common dynamic: the tension between one who resists and the force they resist. 

This dynamic can recur in different lights. If you want to use it to highlight negative qualities, you can do so just as easily as you can highlight positive ones.

Consider this positive inflection: 

🎸 Her energy was infectious. The entire team rallied behind her every time she spoke up and retreated every time she paused. Her spirit was buoyant and her team knew that though something might slow her down, nothing would stop her. She was a cork that could not be kept under the water many moments at a time.

And consider this negative one:

🎸 His energy was toxic. Every time his team tried to pull him in a different, better, more sensible direction, he resisted. There was a surface he wanted to meet and he wouldn’t let anyone stop him. He was a cork that could not be kept under the water many moments at a time.

The dynamic is resistance to force. Depending on how you want to describe the force, you can use this metaphor to evoke a good or bad resistor. 

3. Sandcastle

“The pre-2008 economy was built on a combustible pile of mortgage debt, and bets on mortgage debt, that exploded once banks got nervous and started to call in their money. Some cleaning up of the mortgage markets was done, but Wall Street simply moved elsewhere to build new credit sandcastles, leading to an explosion of corporate debt, securitized commercial loans (CLOs), takeovers, etc.”

- Matt Taibbi, Resetting the Bomb

Matt Taibbi has the tough task of making finance legible. It’s already a subject few understand. He wants to describe the arcane financial tricks that collapsed on themselves during the 2008 recession. 

You can’t depend on your readers understanding something so complex. It’s rare too that you have the space to describe the whole apparatus and how it works. Instead, it’s often best to pick your battles and explain the dynamics you can.  

You sometimes have to sacrifice one form of understanding for another. 

In this excerpt, Taibbi uses metaphor to focus on two dynamics: the dangerous potential of mortgage debt and the fragile nature of credit. These two metaphors, the dangerous combustion and the fragile sandcastle, can remain a pair or you can separate them. 

Consider this riff:

🎸 Management flitted between leaderless and leader-full. Alone, these egos could deftly pilot their teams. Together, they couldn’t pick a direction. The corporate board had assembled a combustible pile of egos, one that threatened to explode every time a meeting stretched beyond its limit. Managers came, managers left, and the board saw no issue. Instead, they built new leader sandcastles, leading to a collapse of fraught desires.  

There’s a lot you could try to capture when describing a dysfunctional team. Metaphors help you hone in on particular dynamics and make those stand out against the rest of the details. 

The war for attention isn’t won when you get someone to listen to you. Victory is when your audience remembers your point and changes or takes action. 

Don’t falter after winning someone’s attention. Prove they made the right decision. Model yourself after these writers and use metaphors to ensure your point stands out.