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The Effectiveness of Metaphorical Expression

The Effectiveness of Metaphorical Expression

Generate Perspective. Create Possibilities. Develop Self-Awareness.

By Mary Verstraete

Communicating effectively is fundamental for a leader. I consistently ask leaders, "What gets done without conversation?" The answer, "Nothing."  To increase influence and effectiveness as a leader, communication is key–not just any level of communication, but skilled communication.

Leaders often find themselves helping others to maneuver through challenges--in doing so, the ideal results generate perspective, create possibilities, and develop self-awareness which enables people to make informed decisions. One skill that helps to facilitate these results is metaphoric language.

What Is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses a word or phrases to compare two unrelated things in order to emphasize similar qualities. For example, when someone says, "I followed in my father's footsteps as a consultant," we know that he has not literally stepped in footprints his father left on the ground but is expressing the idea that his father's career example has left a positive lasting impression on his own career choices.

What Makes Metaphors Important?

Metaphors add clarity by linking with the person's existing thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that are internalized--they create a picture of what the person is already thinking, feeling, and believing. Because visual words engage the client with imagery that can be experienced, this emotional connection to reality amplifies the person's intuitive perceptions and understanding. Authors Whitworth, Kimsey House, and Sandahl of Co-Active Coaching state,

"Often the truth for clients is not in their mind but in their heart or gut. Metaphors tend to bypass the analysis and target those powerful places."

Because metaphorical expressions create powerful and lasting images and ideas, they are effective at communicating both tangible and conceptual information. Tangible information is considered factual or literal information while conceptual is intangible, abstract information.

Let's look at this in more detail. Factual information in a metaphor is confirming the person's reality and is a mirror of that reality. In other words--fact and truth.  An abstract part of a metaphor adds perspective, and insight, possibilities--all supporting the person to understand and see beyond his or her current reality.

"Metaphors engage a person with visual imagery that can be experienced in ways that bring added perspective and possibilities."


Direct report: "My boss wants to promote me from Customer Service Agent to Director of Customer Service. It's one thing to be a part of a team, but a whole other thing to lead it. I've enjoyed my job for the past three years...this would be a significant change."

Leader's response: "A leap from team to director--certainly a compliment to you, but a significant change in position and function."

This brief illustration of metaphorical language communicated the tangible information of change and the conceptual information of leap. 

  • Significant change in position and function communicates the tangible facts.
  • Using the simple word "leap" connects to the person's existing thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that are internalized, communicates understanding of the person's situation, and adds perspective. This validates the person's own belief on the situation which in turn generates confidence.
  • The person is now in a conversational space where he or she is ready and wanting to explore the situation further.

Visual words communicate more effectively than words lacking imagery, as long as they also satisfy our left brain by being something we can logically relate to.

To bring metaphors to practical application let's look at a two simple metaphorical expressions:

  1. "Education is the gateway to various opportunities" instead of saying:
    • "Education provides various opportunities."
  2. "If you look out through the window of opportunity, what do you see?" instead of saying:
    • "What other opportunities do you see for yourself?"

Here we can see how adding simple phraseology to facts generates imagery, whereby the person sees the particular topic of discussion through that imagery. This imagery makes an lasting impression and generates added perspective to the facts, perspective that the person will "see" and apply when the topic arises again.

Steps of action to become skilled in metaphorical expression:

  • Study speeches or articles that effectively use metaphors. Click here to listen to a master of metaphorical language, President Reagan.
  • Practice metaphorical expression as a regular part of your conversation.
  • Avoid using cliché.
  • Avoid using long metaphors. An effective metaphor can often be communicated in a word or two and will almost never extend beyond a sentence or two.

Mary is president and cofounder of the Center for Coaching Excellence where she writes, trains, and consults on effective and masterful leadership conversations.