Posted by Jason Ocker and Michael Colombo

Alien Names

Aristotle called metaphors “alien names.” He meant that they are words reserved for one thing that are used to describe another. You know, like “all we are is dust in the wind.” Literally speaking, we’re not dust, and we certainly don’t act like dust in the wind. People are people, and they act like people. Dust in the wind is dust in the wind, and it acts like dust in the wind. But using that phrase in an alien way tells us something about the human condition. Like, we apparently all recognize Kansas lyrics. When used appropriately, metaphor is a way to approach ideas differently, to make complex ideas clearer, and to make unfamiliar ideas familiar.

Metaphors are also sneaky bastards. Plato, I think, said that one.

We tell stories here. B2B stories. The way a novelist sits down to plot a book is the same way we sit down and plot a corporate message (and although novelists don’t always have to do that first, we do). In fact, we incorporate a traditional story structure in our proprietary framework for corporate messaging.

Metaphor is something we’re constantly tangoing with. After all, B2B is still human-to-human, and humans think and speak in a constant flow of metaphors. On top of that, the types of clients that we serve, the products they sell, and the sales processes themselves are all highly complex and highly technical. So metaphors are extremely attractive to help create succinct, compelling messages.

But there’s a fine line between using and misusing metaphor, and with B2B messaging, a real danger to the brand in that latter. So we’ve put together three basic rules for using metaphor in business messaging:

1. The Metaphor Should Clarify the Story. The point of metaphor is to tell a commonly understood story that is more accessible than the story itself. In other words, to clarify. If the metaphor makes the story less clear than the literal story—say, by being too convoluted or too complex—metaphor should be avoided.

2. The Metaphor Should Be Contained. Even a great metaphor can become a liability. If it’s used throughout an entire story, the metaphor becomes tedious and eventually breaks down to irrelevancy in the details (because nothing is exactly like anything else). A metaphor is a plot device, not a substitute for the plot itself.

3. The Metaphor Should Elevate Your Brand. The metaphors used by a business should be appropriate to the brand and the message. The metaphor leaves an image with the audience and that image should make a brand cooler, better, and more relevant, and never less so.

So that’s it. Treat metaphors like dynamite: powerful and useful but often dangerous. Use them when it makes sense to, use them sparingly to make a specific sharp point in your story, and use them to elevate your brand.

Too bad Aristotle wasn’t a marketer. He would’ve have just laid all this out for us already.