Metaphors Matter

It’s true, metaphors matter, and far more than you might expect.

As Lib Dems we need to realise something. We don’t think the way we should think, so we don’t win where we should win.

People think mostly using the subconscious. This is the automatic bit of our brain. Want to test it… what’s 3+5 = ? The answer comes quick to you. It’s automatic. Because you have existing structures in your subconscious to answer questions. You’ve answered that a lot in the past so you’ve connected the question and answer.

When you were young you might of used your fingers, or counted objects. That’s your conscious brain at work.

Try 24 x 38 = ? Head hurt? I know mine does. This is your consciousness, the logic bit of your brain. But this logic bit, your consciousness has to retrieve lots of bits of information from your subconscious to times those two numbers.

Your consciousness relies on your subconscious. “Ok, what does your subconscious rely on to make sense of the world?” I hear you saying.

A lot of it is metaphors. The world is a complex place, so we relate it to other things we are used to. Brexit too complex? What about a hard or soft brexit? No-deal consequences hard to get your head around? What about a cliff-edge Brexit?

This how we actually think. And this is why our politicians use metaphors all the time.

But metaphors aren’t just influential, they are universal. As a Harvard Business Professor Gerald Zaltman explains in the book Metaphoria, there are 7 fundamental “deep” metaphors we all understand.

  1. Balance “balanced diet”
  2. Transformation “you’ve grown into your new role”
  3. Journey “the people have voted to depart but not for the destination”
  4. Connection “Wazzzzup” from Budweiser advert
  5. Control “cliff-edge Brexit”
  6. Container “thinking outside the box”
  7. Resource “their assets were frozen”

In the book Metaphoria it’s also explained that around 70% of metaphors fit into these categories. And we all understand them. You don’t have to divide people into small stereotypical boxes. You can use these deep metaphors to appeal to all. For example, the no-deal Brexit “falling off the cliff” metaphor gives you a sense you’ve lost control and it’s not going to end well.

So we need to think about our metaphors, use the 7 fundamental deep metaphors we all understand, and make every message matter.

For more communications, messaging and framing chat, see my new podcast “Frame Game”, or find the “Lib Dem Framing Forum” on Facebook.

* Richard Maxwell joined the party in 2015 and has a keen interest in communications.

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  • Very thought provoking, so here are my thoughts. The use of metaphors and similes (I was taught at school that it was vital to know the distinction) is something we all do and is inherent in language, and of course thinking. After a time words are recognised to have expanded or changed their meanings. Which takes me on to my musing. We tend to assume that because people are familiar with the words we are using they understand them in the same way as we do. In reality of course there is very substantial evidence that this is not so. The human attention span is short. So people will remember a few phrases, especially if they are repeated. They also are more likely to remember ideas put in the form of stories – at least stories they can relate to. Our view of the world is created by the way those around us, and those we listen to on the media, use words. A good example of this is the present debate on the relationship of the U.K. to the European Union. It is as if there are people in the U.K. who are speaking different languages as far as the subject is concerned. This is because they are.

  • An interesting article. I think as Lib Dems we massively fail to consider how the brain and memory works. Somewhere on youtube there is an academic that describes a somewhat similar concept like downloading an app to your phone. It gives you a new ability and way of thinking that you didn’t possess before – just as your phone can do something different. “Fake news” has been such an app if you like – although interestingly Trump has taken “fake news” and applied it to CNN etc. which aren’t fake news. And he was a master of doing this during the primary campaign and is- “low energy jeb” “lying ted [cruz]” “lock her up”, building the wall, make America great again etc.

    He also painted in bold and emotional strokes and continues to do so – we need to do so too as Lib Dems but of course about different things to Trump. We remember and take an interest in those things that provoke strong emotions. It has been obv. important to remember where the lion was hiding in our evolutionary past to avoid it in the future.

    We have a tendency as Lib Dems to present reams of dry statistics without human interest. A human interest story as @Tom Harney says is important. But perhaps this is a bit different from just that. Another example is Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Our “working hard for you all year round” is another. But also “fake news” is not a story – it is a way of thinking about things.

  • Peter Chambers 27th Sep '18 - 8:08pm

    Please do not use the term ‘fake news’. If you mean disinformation, say so. If you mean something else, describe that.

    Trump is good at using epithets. As with many things, we already have a useful vocabulary.

    Parlez Newspeak ?

  • @Peter Chambers

    You make my whole point.

    The first non-Trump use of “Fake news” supposes that there is some objective truth out there which I very much dispute. You can assemble “facts” in many different ways – absolute versus relative poverty is one such example. A median average versus a mean etc.

    Orwell’s 1984 and newspeak is of course a very pertinent warning. And why on this site I have advocated the widest possible freedom of speech as if we too much restrict it then we severely harm our political discourse and society.

  • Tony Greaves 28th Sep '18 - 2:07pm

    It seems that “youthful whizz-kids” are no good at that kind of thing, Peter. It’s down to old fogies like you and me to think them up. At least we realise that words have to have some intrinsic meaning!

  • Peter Hirst 28th Sep '18 - 7:20pm

    Metaphors can allow people to come to their opinion about a statement and so ideally appeal to a greater proportion of those listening. Any metaphor can be interpreted too rigidly. ” A cliff edge” is quite specific unless you see it as a platform for a swim. See how long you can stick to one metaphor without mixing it when necessary. Metaphors are remembered long after the facts of a speech. However, people tend to take metaphors far beyond what the user intended.

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