The Golden Key of Persuasion
Updated: Mar 23
Excerpted from Gary Bencivenga’s Marketing Bullet #25 • www.marketingbullets.com
Aristotle said about the art of persuasion, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.” Nothing persuades as quickly, effectively, memorably, or permanently as a well-crafted metaphor.
With a good metaphor, you fuse at the hip two different things and, by a mysterious alchemy, instantly transfer the qualities of one into the other. Good metaphors are wizardry that work real magic in your prospects’ minds. That’s because this process of transferring the qualities of one thing into another takes place instantly, bypassing critical analysis and resistance. All you do is compare A to B in an effective way and voila! your point is made instantly without disagreement. This can make you a magician of persuasion!
Let’s say you are writing about the wisdom of starting early to invest for retirement. You could write a sleep-inducing treatise on the subject. But look at how effectively master investor Warren Buffett does it—with a simple metaphor…
“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
Or consider Ben Franklin on the wisdom of frugality…
“Small leaks sink great ships.” Do you see how tight, how irrefutable, how powerful such arguments are when phrased in an apt metaphor? They yield instant agreement, and that is their magic.
Muhammad Ali in his prime was as quick as his left jab. In prefight banter with reporters, Ali could verbally out-shadowbox even the cleverest reporters, leaving them laughing with metaphors like these:
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”
A personal story: When Pauline and I were young, we came upon an adorable little cottage for sale on a little bluff overlooking the ocean. We fell in love with it.
We bought it, signing a contract to close in May. We couldn’t wait for our dream summer at the beach. But as the closing date drew near, the scheming seller realized he could make even more money if he rented the cottage out to someone else for the summer, so he insisted that he had to postpone our closing until mid-September.
“No way!” howled my lawyer. And then he lowered the boom on the seller’s gambit with this telling metaphor: “You want to sell Gary and Pauline a toy store on the day after Christmas. No fair!” The seller caved; we closed in May and enjoyed the first of many enchanting summers in our cottage by the sea.
Your richest sources of metaphor include the Bible, fairy tales, sports, the movies—any source of images that we all know by heart. And I do mean “by heart,” because the mere mention of certain images will automatically trigger in your audience powerful emotions they already harbor, which often enables you to persuade instantly.
For example, when writing to investors, I would shamelessly massage their greed glands by describing “a Sleeping Beauty stock“ or “Cinderella opportunity” or “ugly duckling company about to become a swan.”
If you manage a team trying to outperform a superior competitor, you can instantly give them more confidence by describing them as fearless Davids about to take down Goliath. If you’re putting a work group together for a special project, it’s motivational magic to tell each member that he or she has been selected for an all-star team…or that they are about to move from summer stock to Broadway…or get the chance to compete “in the Super Bowl of our industry,” etc.
You can instantly illustrate a charismatic leader’s strong hold on his followers by saying that, to them, “he walks on water” or she could “part the Red Sea.” You could call a crooked politician a liar, but it’s so much more amusing—and devastating—to quip, “With his every statement, his nose grows longer.”
You can give a metaphor a humorous twist to enliven any speech or ad. In the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention of 1988, former Texas Governor Ann Richards lampooned the first President George Bush. Describing, in her view, his fumbling attempts to connect with the American people, she lamented…
“Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
You can do this! First identify the point you want to make. Then imagine a metaphor (or comparison) that makes your point for you. It’s fun, like a treasure hunt. Start looking and you’ll notice useful metaphors everywhere. Collect them like coins and you’ll find many opportunities to spend them on more colorful prose. Just the other day I heard Jacob Teitelbaum MD speaking on the radio about the effect of too much coffee:
“Caffeine is an energy loan shark. What it lends you in the morning it takes back with heavy interest in the afternoon.”
Please don’t turn up your nose at the more familiar metaphors. I love clichés, and you should too! They are clichés precisely because everyone already believes them, so using them gives your copy greater credibility. Some examples…
“Old as dirt.”
“Cool as a cucumber.”
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
“A leopard doesn’t change its spots.”
“Where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“You are opening a Pandora’s box of problems.”
“A sea change is sweeping across this industry…”
“Overall, we like the agreement, but this clause is a bone in our throat.” “Asleep at the switch.”
“Tip of the iceberg.”
“Roller coaster of emotions.” …the list is almost endless.
As with all claims in your copy, don’t exaggerate with metaphors. That reduces credibility and depresses response. Also beware of using “mixed metaphors.” The competing images drown each other out, as in: ‘the silver lining at the end of the tunnel’ or ‘don’t count your chickens till the cows come home.’
Some people are so wild about metaphors that they can’t resist using them in pairs. This may work, if the images don’t clash: Frieda viewed her marriage as a tight ship, but Lorenzo was plotting a mutiny. Since the images of tight ship and mutiny have an idea in common (sailing), they blend into one picture. But usually when two figures of speech appear together, they aren’t so compatible. In that case, the less said, the better.
To get better at coming up with metaphors, read John Updike’s stories or Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Marvel at how economically Shakespeare captures a world of wisdom with this single metaphor…
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”
When life gets you down, remember Shakespeare’s metaphor and it will give you solace. It’s all a big play. Soon this act will be over, the curtain will fall only to rise again, new players will assemble onstage in fresh costumes, and perhaps you will star in a different role. Shakespeare’s eloquent metaphor can change your whole perspective any time you think of it, which is exactly what a good metaphor does.