When Sports Analogies Miss the Target

Playing the field. Home run. Hit the bullseye.

Sports analogies are as inevitable as sports fans. But as discussed in a recent New York Times story, it’s not a good idea to wade too far into sports terminology because your message can get lost in the weeds when what you really want is a mulligrubber.

A what, you say?

Precisely the point. If you’re not familiar with rugby, you won’t know that a mulligrubber is a  play that essentially buys a moment of time.

Even if you are communicating with an audience intimately conversant with your topic, don’t use inside baseball to make your main point. State it clearly, in plain English, even if you’ve teed it up with a metaphor.  Because simply stating your point is always a home run.


Backhand compliment.



FedSpeak: A Metaphor is Like Money in the Bank


If your policies are too complicated even for your colleagues to understand, make your point with a metaphor.

It works for the Federal Reserve Banks. It’ll work for you.

“I think you can use [metaphors] in two ways,” said Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, as quoted in the Wall St. Journal in an entire article on the Fed’s colorful language. Mr. Fisher says. “One is to get people to listen, and the other is to explain policy.”

Crystal-clear, Mr. Fisher!

Metaphors are ideal for grabbing people’s attention. A memorable metaphor will be repeated, quoted and might even take on a life of its own.

That’s why you should do as the Fed officials do and choose your metaphors carefully, testing them with an experienced communication consultant who can examine the figure of speech from all angles to see how it will be perceived and misperceived.  As spontaneous as your delivery might be, your actual language must be chosen with care.

Fisher’s other point is that a metaphor must be true as well as snappy. The comparison you are making must either simplify a concept or simplify the introduction to a complex concept. The test for this is easy: try out the metaphor on a colleague from a different department or outside your field. If you have to explain the metaphor, it’s self-defeating and distracting. Toss it away and try another one. The good news about metaphors is the better you are at using them, the better you will be at finding them.

How ‘The Glass Ceiling’ Became a Mega-Metaphor

Everybody knows what ‘the glass ceiling’ is: the invisible but real barrier between rising women and executive positions.

That you don’t need that phrase defined proves the power of a metaphor that taps into a deep trend accompanied by deep emotions.  Powerful metaphors are more than snappy turns of speech. They reach deep into the zeitgeist to crystallize how people feel. That’s what makes them memorable — and more:  “the glass ceiling” defines a widespread problem that affects success and economic wellbeing for millions of women.

A recent New York Times magazine feature on innovation helpfully explains who coined ‘the glass ceiling,’ and why. As a human resources manager at a large company in 1978, Marilyn Loden saw the statistics that summarized who got promoted, and who didn’t.  While participating in a panel discussion about workplace advancement titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” she suddenly paired her longstanding observation that women hit a ceiling with the imagery of glass.

It was an inspiration that defined not just the current situation of baby boomer women who aspired to leadership, but also the submerged organizational culture and structures that blocked those aspirations.

Here’s why ‘the glass ceiling’ works:

  • It is a juxtaposition of two familiar items — glass and ceiling — in an unexpected way. Everybody knows what glass is and everybody knows what a ceiling is, so it’s easy for them to envision a glass ceiling.
  • It is easy to build on the image. How many times have you read the phrase “cracks in the glass ceiling?” An entire online newsletter, The Glass Hammer, references the glass ceiling without mentioning it.
  • Share it. Loden’s inspiration happened in the moment, in front of an audience. She didn’t try to control it or copyright it or own it. If you coin a moneymaker, its influence (and yours) will grow only when others use it.

Short, relatable and easy to use: that’s how ‘the glass ceiling’ became a meta-metaphor.


How to Hijack a Metaphor

The notion of the career ladder is so embedded in American workplace culture that it’s..well…the yardstick for every other model of professional advancement.

I’d know: as the author of The Career Lattice, it seems that every interview starts with a variation on this question: “We all know about career ladders. What is a career lattice?” (Short answer:  taking strategic lateral moves to position yourself           for an upward move.)  In December, this is how I opened an hour-long radio interview with career coach Bonnie Marcus.

Of course, the title of my book resonates with the public specifically because it almost sounds like ‘ladder’…but isn’t. “Ladder” and ‘lattice’ look similar on the page, conjure up similar images, and sound similar. Riding the coattails of the ladder makes it easier for me to expand the message and brand of the lattice.

Keep an eye – and ear – out for similar metaphors for your key messages. What terms or images are embedded in the culture of your industry’s culture? Hijack one of those metaphors by tweaking it just enough to catch attention and surprise your audience with an image that starts familiar and ends fresh.

Metaphor Me!

Gotta love a writer who can summarize his creative process in succinct metaphor.

“I’m a dancer who walks for a living,” says Michael Erard in a recent New York Times essay on the creative process. He has a day job — he is a ‘think tank researcher.’ But on the side, he writes for fun and profit.

His two best pieces of advice are useful for anyone seeking to craft messages.

  • Note what catches your interest — especially if it represents a style approach very different from yours.
  • And when you are immersing in your own creative process, really immerse! Turn off your social media and news feeds, and shut down your email.

Proust Was Right

Comfort food, meet comfort memories.

Harvard researchers have found that when people have childhood memories top-of-mind, they are likely to be more helpful, be more judgemental of unethical behaviour, and are more inclined to donate to charity.

In other words, childhood memories also evoke a more childlike moral perception, as reported in the Sept. 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind.

If it’s appropriate for your audience and your message, considering constructing a metaphor that evokes a child’s sense of right and wrong, or a child’s point of view. For example, someone advocating for consumer protection laws might say, “These are the same lessons we learned on the playground. If you catch someone else’s ball, throw it back.”

Best Metaphor of the Campaign

It’s hard to beat veteran political speechwriter and commentator Peggy Noonan for the right turn of phrase at the right time.

Which is why she delivered what might be the best metaphor of this election cycle, in the Wall St. Journal:

“You know what Romney sounded like? Like a kid new to politics who thinks he got the inside lowdown on how it works from some operative. But those old operatives, they never know how it works. They knew how it worked for one cycle back in the day.

They’re jockeys who rode Seabiscuit and thought they won a race.”

Here’s why it works:  the jockey is in on the victory. But everyone celebrates the horse.  Think for a moment: what IS the name of the jockey who rode Seabiscuit?

I don’t know either.

And that’s how Noonan makes the point that Romney and his cohorts think that their success is 100% due to themselves, when they enjoyed a rising economic tide plus many priveleges. Any of many jockeys could have ridden Seabiscuit and won. And many equally talented managers could have delivered Romneyesque success, given the same circumstances.

That’s the power of the metaphor: a concise message wrapped in an unforgettable package.

Speak Outside Your Box

What’s better…to conduct a media call at your desk or to conduct the phone interview while standing up and pacing around your office?

You need the privacy of your space for the interview, but it’s important to stand up and break out of your usual seated ‘box,’  to energize yourself and your message.

Now, this classic bit of MediaSkills advice is reinforced by another bit of academic research. As recently reported in the Wall St. Journal, a  committee of university researchers examined the underlying assumptions of the metaphor “outside the box.” They gave students some brainteasers and had some work on the puzzles inside a five-foot-square box, and others tackle the puzzles in open space.

Those outside the box were able to solve the puzzles more quickly.  The new term for this is ’embodied metaphors,’ which makes us wonder what other metaphors the researchers will take on. Meanwhile, it’s enough to know that  you’ll be able to rise to an interview more creatively and confidently when you take command of your space. Moving and gesturing throughout the phone interview will, in the words of the researchers, ” physically and psychologically embodying creative metaphors promote fluency, flexibility, and/or originality in problem-solving.”

Right. What they said.  

Let Your Fingers Do The Talking

Metaphors are powerful, as Media Skills clients know. But when accompanied by reinforcing gestures, metaphors are unstoppable.

Researchers at Colgate University found that presenters who used gestures that mimicked their main points — such as a chopping motion when talking about chopping or cutting — listeners better understood the message. 

Seeing and hearing a metaphor makes the message stick.

Of course, too many flying hands and flinging arms only distract viewers — especially in videos. As you construct your message, weigh the ‘gesture-ability’ of various metaphors. Choose the one that is reinforced most naturally by a simple, powerful gesture that can be delivered within your frame in the camera. Don’t use gestures that point off-camera or that invade the space of your host or other on-camera guests.

Dramatic, contained, on point: those are the gestures that will capture viewers’ attention and drive home your point.