[Copy Tip] Using Metaphors

Have you ever tried to explain something complex to someone who has no idea how it works?

I have. Frankly, I do it almost every day in my job. A lot of people don't really know what a copywriter is, and I spend a lot of time breaking it down for them.

And you know what's helped me out a lot?

Using a metaphor. Something I had never thought about doing until I read  The Tall Lady With The Iceberg: The Power of Metaphors to Sell, Persuade, and Explain Anything to Anyone by Anne Miller.

Now, when people ask me what a copywriter does, I tell them how copywriters are like earthworms. We help connect clients (a.k.a. the air and water) to your product (a.k.a. the roots of your plants) so that your garden (a.k.a. your business) can thrive. 

If you read last week's blog post, you'll know that I already referenced this book. I still haven't finished it quite yet, but it's been extremely influential in how I write and explain my ideas. Because of this, I thought I would share a little bit about how to use metaphors to your advantage. 

What Are Metaphors?

Strictly speaking, metaphors are defined as:

A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money)"

Technically, there is a difference between metaphors and similes. Similies use "like" or "as" to make comparisons whereas metaphors do not. So, for example, "She was quivering LIKE a tree uses a simile and "She walked into the curtain of the night"  is a metaphor.

However, for our purposes, we will look at the definition more broadly to include any sort of comparative language. We will call it speaking metaphorically. 

Metaphors help liven up our language and make things more interesting to listen to. They also help us understand things that are confusing or new. They relate fresh concepts back to things that we already know and understand, allowing us to understand them a little bit better. 

Imagine that aliens were to touch down on earth today. They might look similar to humans, but they all wear these funny backpacks that help them overcome the effects of gravity. Because of this, they don't walk down the streets like humans do and can instead bounce along down the streets. 

We would probably describe them in a few ways. You can picture Anderson Cooper on TV saying something along the lines of:

"They're bouncing down the street like a kickball."

Ann Coulter might disagree. She might say:

"No, they are actually floating down the street in between bounces. They are actually more like balloons at a party."

Regardless of how it's described, you have a better idea of what it looks like for one of these aliens to move down the street. They don't crawl like cockroaches or flatten their backs against the buildings. They don't zoom down the road like a bowling ball moving towards pins. Instead, they lazily drift their way down 5th Avenue, flying freely in the skies.

In short, metaphors help us paint pictures in our heads. This helps us make sense of the numbers, statistics, and other information that's thrown our way. And frankly, these are what make these concepts stick in our brains. 



When Are Metaphors Useful?

Using metaphors can be tricky. You don't want to bombard your reader with them, otherwise they become less effective. However, you also don't want to leave the reader in the dark because they can't conceptualize what you are talking about. You want your metaphors to flow naturally, but also drive a point home. 

To do this, you need to pay attention to your audience. When you explain something that you want someone to understand, you need to pay attention to when their eyes glaze over or they ask a question.

Miller recommends that you use metaphors as a response to questions that arise often or that are crucial to your business. Some of the questions she highlights are:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • How do you do it?
  • Why does it matter?
  • How are you different?
  • Why do I need you?
  • How long will this take?
  • How much will this cost?
  • Why do I need you now?

She calls these questions or points the perfect "metaphor moments." They are great places within conversation or writing to make your idea a little bit more clear.

Now here's the thing. You don't want to use a metaphor to answer every single one of these questions every single time. Otherwise it can become overwhelming and veer off topic. You'll need to gauge your audience to see where the metaphor will hit home. 

How To Make An Effective Metaphor

If you want to introduce metaphors to your business but don't really know where to start, there are a few things you should keep in mind. 

1. Relate the metaphor to your audience.

If you're using a metaphor, you need to keep your audience in mind. The metaphor needs to be something that they can relate to. Otherwise, it's going to fall flat on its face. 

In writing, a lot of this is preparation. You should do market research, understand who the target is, read magazines that they read, and try to understand common experiences that they have. 

There is also an element of "reading the room" in this. If you're giving a presentation to a room full of female entrepreneurs, it would be stupid to use analogies of cars. Most women (and I know this is a gendered generalization) are not interested in cars. While a few women in the audience will get your references, the majority will stop paying attention immediately.

Instead, you might want to talk to something relevant in their lives or that they can relate to—what it's like being a woman in the workplace, periods, children, etc. 

2. Bring the metaphor back to your point.

A metaphor is wasted if it doesn't connect back to what you are trying to say. In fact, it's detrimental if it doesn't link back to your topic. It creates confusion and leads people down their own trails of thought. 

For instance, if someone asks me "What do you do?" and I say "I'm an earthworm. I keep your garden healthy. I bring water and air to your plants." they might look at me and ask where my tinfoil hat is. Or they might just nod "Uh huh" and wander to the next person, discreetly asking what is wrong with me. 

Instead, I should say:

"I am a writer who is like an earthworm. Imagine that your business is a garden. Something that healthy gardens have is earthworms. These bugs dig deep into the soil to help bring air and water to the roots of the plants, allowing them to thrive and flourish.

"A copywriter is like an earthworm. I dig deep into the communications of your company and build pathways for clients to reach your product or service. This creates sales and allows your business to thrive."

See how that makes more sense? No tinfoil in this office!

3. Keep it consistent.

You would never read a book where the story changed halfway through a chapter. You would wonder "What the hell is this?" and probably put it aside. 

The same is true for metaphors. 

The purpose of a metaphor is to build a story inside someone's head. In order to do this, you should keep the characters, setting, conflict, and solution consistent. If you use a metaphor of a car accelerating in one paragraph then jump to a metaphor of a ship sinking in the next, the power is lost. 

In branding and in all communications, you should pick a theme to focus on. Even if you don't want to go all-out metaphorical (like me) to describe your business, you might find that an underlying metaphor makes it more impactful.

My friend Liza Callahan does this with her company, It Girl. Her front-page copy reads:

what is a good campaign, piece of content, a good anything if not a good story?
and what is a rumour if not a good story people want to hear and spread?
who are the best at creating and spreading rumours?
it girls.

Liza's copy brings you back to high school. It makes you think of Grease. It falls on a trope that everyone can know, understand, and make sense of. It is a "light" metaphor that is thematic throughout all of her company's communications. 

Not only does this help clients understand what she does, but it also makes it easy to build a cohesive identity. 


Metaphors are a powerful tool that can be used in all aspects of life. However, in the writing and selling process they are especially effective. 

What do you think? Leave a comment below. And while you're at it, try and come up with a kickass metaphor to describe your company.