The beautiful art of Metaphor

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space” - Anon

TED’s Chris Anderson likens the communication of complex ideas to assembling a ship inside a bottle. First the craftsman must be intimately familiar with the component parts. Next he must place them into the bottle in the correct order - piece by logical piece, layer by logical layer. Finally, he must fuse the pieces until they resemble the ship he had in mind in the first place. Any break in the logic, any piece missing or a failure to fuse one layer to the next, and the project is doomed.

But ideas are not ships and their transmission far from mechanical. Unpacking complexity calls for the artful blend of logic, language, empathy and, as we shall see below, analogy, metaphor and parable too. It’s a rare skill but with inspiration and practice it can be mastered.

Consider Hollywood and the books of prolific writer Michael Lewis. Lewis has tackled such intricate topics as the 2008 financial crisis, the influence of big data on baseball and the academic careers of Israeli research psychologists Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman. In an interview with Stephen Dubner, Lewis expressed surprise at Hollywood’s success in translating his complex ideas onto the silver screen. “Just when I think my subject matter is too complex for a movie audience, along comes some bright screenwriter who proves me wrong,'' said Lewis.

It’s not that surprising actually - movie makers are dab hands in the fine art of ship bottling. Here, in descending order of impact, are five of my favorite examples:

5. Best use of Allegory - “The Big Short”

Based on Lewis’ book, the film is a masterful blend of drama and allegory which unveils the dark underbelly of financial malpractice that triggered the 2008 economic meltdown. Had I not seen the film, I would never have applied my mind to subjects like tranches, subprime bonds and synthetic centralised debt obligations (SCDOs). The Big Short, however, is brimming with lucid and memorable explanations. In one scene, Ryan Gosling demonstrates the precarious world of junk bonds with a set of Jenga Blocks. After watching the movie, you’ll never see your favourite drinking game the same way again. In the next scene chef Anthony Bourdain reflects on the make-up of subprime bonds by mixing Friday’s fish into Sunday’s seafood paella: “Hey, it’s not old fish’s a whole new thing”. Later in the movie, Selena Gomez and behavioural psychologist Richard Thaler explain SCDOs over a game of roulette. As Selena extends her winning streak, onlookers bet on her winning the next play while onlookers of the onlookers bet on those onlookers winning or losing their bet on Selena. It’s all very sobering.

4. Honorable mention for allegory - “Moneyball”

Based on another Michael Lewis book, this is the intriguing story of how the Oakland A’s pulled off the longest winning streak in baseball history with one of the smallest payrolls. Jonah Hill's demonstration of how statistics would help manager Billy Beane forge a winning unit from an “island of misfit toys” makes you rethink how we see and value talent - be that on the sports field or in the workplace.

3. Best use of Parable - “Lesterland”

Though not “Hollywood” per se, Lawrence Lessig’s TED talk on how America’s political process has become corrupted by money is sheer class. First, Lessig asked his audience to imagine a country called “Lesterland” in which only people called Lester may vote. He then pointed out that the number of people named Lester in the US is about the same as the number of significant political funders. Alarmingly, it’s these few big funders who define the priorities of congress thus negating the votes of anyone not called Lester.

2. Best use of Metaphor - “Sideways”

The Oscar winning movie “Sideways” is, on the face of it, a story of two troubled guys on a boy’s weekend in the Napa Valley. Scratch a little deeper and the film is a metaphor for two very different cultivars of wine. Brash, womanising Jack is the embodiment of Merlot while sensitive Miles is the essence of little-known Pinot Noir. The metaphor was so convincing that “Sideways” is widely regarded as the single biggest driver of Pinot Noir’s meteoric growth in North America. How do you describe the nature of Pinot Noir without boring or confusing the audience? Paul Giamatti shows us how in this absorbing scene.

And the Winner is...HBO’s “Chernobyl”

Early in the morning of 26 April 1986, Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant exploded, sending a cloud of radioactive fallout clean across the Ukraine and into northern Scandinavia. In the intervening years, thousands would die of radiation sickness and related illnesses. The causes of the catastrophe were not only complex but shrouded in secrecy for the past 3 decades. It was not until the miniseries that the scale of the crisis was made accessible to a global audience. The highlight, at least for me, was the final episode in which nuclear physicist Legasov explains the causes of the explosion in front of a commission of inquiry. Nuclear Physics is no kindergarten subject but Legasov’s explanation of the “invisible dance that powers entire cities without smoke or flame” made even me feel smart.

Psychologist Doug Hofstadter describes analogy, parable and metaphor as “the fabric of our mental life”. Their power is twofold: Firstly, they strip the idea down to its very essence making it easier to digest and re-transmit. Secondly, by using mental imagery we are already familiar with, they treat us as intellectual equals, drawing out just enough meaning to make us either see the light or to connect the dots

Are you in urgent need to a metaphor (or two) to help land your next big idea? Contact us to find out about Metaphorium™, iNCiTE!'s inspiring half-day clinic that teaches you to craft compelling allegories, similes, parables and metaphors that will move your audience.

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