The Value of Metaphor in Business Presentations


A tempest in a teapot when you put the cart before the horse without thinking whether it’s better for the glass to be half-empty.  Gobbledygook, right? But when you don’t want your money to go down the drain, less may not be more, planning is essential, and storms of controversy are definitely not desirable.

And did you happen to notice?  Each of the metaphors above called into mind an image: you “saw” the teapot, you “saw” the horse, you “saw” the glass, you “saw” the drain.

This is because metaphor is basically a word picture, and every time we use one we reinforce the point we’re making, and usually in an emotional way, as well.

Actually, because we know this reinforcement occurs, we all use metaphor all the time in ordinary conversation, usually without thinking too much about it.

And good communicators consciously use metaphor to engage their audiences.

There are two kinds of metaphor: the word type (as above) and the image type (slides examples below).

The objectives of using metaphor in a presentation can be stated as:

  • To create a shortcut to understanding
  • To use an unrelated concept to best convey the essence of another concept, and
  • To simplify what is complex

. . . easy as pie, right?

Use metaphor to achieve the best understanding among your audience, when you want a point to create an indelible impression, and/or when you want to trigger an emotional response. Metaphors speak from and to the right side of the brain (emotion and imagination), so use them when you think your presentation is pulling too hard to the left side (reason). If you don’t stimulate the right brain hemisphere, your audience will probably die of boredom while you overwhelm them with left-brain data and fact.

And when it’s possible, find a metaphor that captures the whole idea of your presentation. For example: for an annual company conference one can use the metaphor of a Formula 1 race: to be able to talk about preparation for the race, the objective of the race, the competitors; to be able to provide an analysis of previous races and a discussion of what went wrong; and to be able to address current advantages of the car, etc.

Likewise, when launching a new product, one can talk about the building of a road: the nuances of the topography, the challenges of hills and curves, the time it takes to get to the destination, stops along the way, and so forth.

Now we move to image metaphor:

A visual metaphor is a powerful communication tool when you have the luxury of using images along with your verbal message.  For example, long before icons were generally incorporated into text – which is common now – “I (heart) New York” became a hugely hard-hitting symbolic expression, so much so that text/image combinations like it have now found their way into the languages of all the media.

Two things are happening when we look at a visual image vs. hearing a verbal message:

First, 30 percent of brain neurons are engaged when we look at something, and when we look at something it’s usually more than a split-second look.  Second, 3 percent of brain neurons are engaged when we listen to something, and when we’re hearing something each word (or note) passes fast to make way for the next.

So the fact that the eye can look at an image over time, while a spoken word is in and out of the ear and brain in a split second, has probably got a lot to do with retention.  We remember better what we see one time, whereas it can take several hearings to remember what we’ve heard.

So take a look at some examples of metaphor in client presentations.  As is well known, a picture is worth ten thousand words.