2 Little things that could send your presentation into Orbit

Metaphor and Analogy are powerful tools to capture your audience's imagination

In “How the Mighty Fall”, Jim Collins describes the five stages of corporate decline. Time and again, Collins had found that the seeds of a company’s decline lay deep within the system long before the rot actually set in. But the perfect analogy to describe this phenomenon only surfaced during a run with his wife up Electric Pass outside Aspen, Colorado.

“At 11 000ft I capitulated to the thin air and slowed to a walk while Joanne continued her uphill assault….running from switchback to switchback toward the summit ridge. Two months later she received a diagnosis that would lead to two mastectomies. I realised that at the very moment she looked like the picture of health, she must have already been carrying the carcinoma. That image of her, healthy yet already sick, stuck in my mind and gave me a metaphor. An institution can look strong on the outside but already be sick on the inside, dangerously on the cusp of a precipitous fall”

It stuck in my mind too. So much so that it’s hard, after hearing that story, to think differently about organisations. “Analogy and Metaphor are the fabric of our mental life,” says cognitive scientist Doug Hofstadter. Together they have immense power not just to convince and persuade but to educate too. “They make the unfamiliar familiar...they help the mind navigate new terrain by making it resemble terrain we already know”, says a former White House speechwriter Jon Pollack. But it doesn’t stop there. Aristotle, the father of Rhetoric, wrote that: “Metaphors and analogies energize listeners and move them to action”. This view was echoed by the late Harvard philosopher Donald Schon who described them as “generative”, holding a special power to initiate and perpetuate vital work behaviours. Consider how Disney calls its employees “cast members”, how cast members don’t interview for a job, they “audition for a role”. Visitors to Disney theme parks are “guests”, jobs there are “performances” and uniforms are “costumes”. All of this transcends mere labeling: these metaphors fuel the right behaviours too. No-one who considers themselves a “cast member” and their job as a “role” would dream of taking a smoke break (or any break for that matter) while in costume in a public area. Even the guy sweeping the sidewalk knows he’s not just tidying up but managing one of the most magnificent “stages” in the world of entertainment. Simply put, analogies and metaphors that work are ones that are easy to process and easy to remember. “Processing fluency” describes the former and “retrieval fluency” the latter. You need both to unlock their true power. Here are a few examples from the world of work. I’m sure you’ll agree, they are dynamite: Warren Buffett on his investment philosophy

  • “No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”

  • “Predicting rain doesn’t count. Building arks does"

  • “A good business is like a strong castle with a moat around it. I want sharks in the moat. I want a knight in charge. I want it untouchable”

Jim Collins, as we have seen, is also a master of this turn of phrase...

I’m convinced that’s what makes his books so appealing. Here are a few metaphors he uses to clarify the leadership principles in “Great by Choice”:

  • “Carry out low cost, low risk, low distraction experiments before committing major resource”: Jim makes it sticky by encouraging leaders to “Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs”

  • “Hit specific business milestones with great consistency over a long period of time”: Collins refers to the daily discipline of Polar Explorer Ernest Shackleton to make the “The 20-mile march” regardless of whether the conditions were unfavourable or favourable

  • “Make a daily habit of being ‘productively paranoid’ when it comes to managing risk”: Collins borrows a term from high altitude mountaineering encouraging decision makers to "lead above the death line"

One last one from Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, “Apocalypse Now” - “Charging a man for murder in ‘Nam was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500” Next time you’ve got a big preso to deliver, why not make the time to work in a metaphor or two? If done well, it could make all the difference

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