Use of metaphors and analogic language in business
In business, we often use technical words, commercial terms or abbreviations to convey our competency in the field and to get directly to the point, but often resulting to be very little effective in our communic-ation. We do our best to render our presentations and communications objective, definitional, cerebral, logical and analytical. Yet more often than not, they fail to create the pathos necessary to make it stand out and be embraced by our interlocutors.
As the great persuader Blaise Pascal sustained, before convincing the intellect it is necessary to touch and predispose the heart.
Communication research shows that in fact we hold two languages, digital and analogic (Watzlawick et al., 1974). Our communication can be highly effective only if we speak both languages, stimulating both hemispheres of the brain.
Digital language is a mode which often is factual, purely conventional and thus seemingly arbitary. Analogic language is the use of a sign which does have some immediately obvious relation to the thing it signifies (significatum) in that it represents a likeness or analogy.
This polarity runs through the millennia of human thought, through philosophy, psychology, arts, religion and even in business. Through the ages, great leaders have used story-telling, parables and enigma to reinforce their message and excite their followers to act towards the proposed mission.
The use of analogic language can connect at a deeper level than with dry, logical facts, thus helping to elicit more interest and intrigue in the interlocutors (Nardone, Portelli, 2005).
Even in business, metaphors, analogies, anecdotes and other figures of speech are word tools which we can use to enrich our communication, to help create a connection between clients and our views, and to induce them to welcome our way of thinking.
Analogic language evokes visceral reactions or emotional responses which can help plough the grounds to seed our ideas and thus activate growth. The use of analogic language can have a powerful impact on our business because it takes rational creatures such as executives, managers or stakeholders by storm, stirring emotions which are the necessary pushing forces that drive humans to actually act and/or change. We make decisions, take a leap, not just when we know it is good but we can feel it is good. “We only consult the ear because the heart is wanting” (Pascal Pensée I:30).
As an executive coach, I often use stories or metaphors to present different aspects of business life more vividly. Moreover, analogic language is a potent means of moving the client’s attitude or confidence forward.
Figurative language is a powerful instrument in motivating clients to stop their endless deliber-ations and act. Metaphors depicting an action are usually more evocative and effective.
Most strategists regard metaphorical language to be more effective than literal language (Srivasta and Barrett, 1988) because it can capture all organisational stakeholders’ experience and emotions better and can thus communicate meaning in complex, ambiguous situations where literal language is inad-equate. (Palmer and Dunford, 1996).
According to research, when we use images, such as visual metaphors, we are connecting to the side of the brain that can understand abstract concepts. Metaphors and analogies are effective at making abstract or difficult-to-understand concepts understandable.
For management researchers, competitive strategy metaphors use language to convey information and ideas, which can be transferred into tacit knowledge, a way of thinking and viewing the world, which cannot be easily articulated (Morgan, 1986). In essence, a metaphor captures the deficiency of the incap-ability to convey discrete symbol language about an object, event or experience.
Thus analogic language can be employed, for example, in sales to tear down barriers between us and our clients, barriers that have been inadvertently built by our use of language that is technically correct but incomprehensible to the client. By painting a picture with metaphors and analogies, we create a visual image of our concept. In doing so we ensure that it sticks better and far longer in the mind of our interlocutor than would a litany of industry- or product-specific terms.
Metaphors are incredible as a means of facing objections: the images that metaphors and ana-logies create cause clients to pause and think, and to perceive the situation from a perspective different from their own (yours!).
The use of metaphor and other figures of speech is a “pure creativity act” because it stimulates a creative process which employes one’s imagination to “evoke and suggest new ways of doing things” (Cleary and Packard, 1992; Palmer and Dunford, 1996).
They become a valuable communication tool to share concepts and visions and re-direct both internal and external communication of purpose (Boland and Greenberg, 1988).
Moreover, analogic language can be used in framing a dispute or situation, or the means by which we address or approach a negotiation problem. Often, the metaphoric language used in business is at the core of how a person perceives the situation and suggests how they might react or respond (Milanese, Mordazzi, 2007).
Metaphors are emotional mirrors. We can study the other person’s use of metaphors to “hear” what they are really saying, as well as to understand their true thoughts or feelings.
This will guide us in how we should respond, react or, when necessary, intervene adequately in conflict management.
Even though we often make use of analogical language in our everyday talk (such as “Life is a yo-yo. It’s a series of ups and downs”), we often tend to overlook its strong persuasive, creative and motivational powers which can be exploited to the best in an organisational context, but also in everyday life with ourselves and significant others.
In fact, an ancient Chinese saying reads “One image replaces a thousand words”.
All the foregoing shall be discussed during an advanced-level workshop in persuasive communication organised by W&D Magro Ltd, the business advisory arm of W&D, a mid-tier firm of accountants and auditors, and members of JHI, a global affiliation of accountants and business advisors. For more information one may visit www.wdmalta.com or e-mail [email protected].
Dr Portelli is strategic coach and trainer at W&D’s business advisory unit.