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Improve Your Presentations with the Power of the Metaphor

November 18, 2014 / Blog, Experts, Lessons, Presentation Science metaphors for presentations, Nancy Duarte, presentation expert, presentation tips

The success of your presentation is determined by how well you can connect with your audience. If you’re able to capture their attention and engage them with your discussion, you’re on your way to a great outcome.

So how do you capture their imagination?

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For poets, authors, and songwriters, there’s always the metaphor. They equate certain ideas or concepts with images that people are already familiar with. Since these concepts are often abstract and difficult to explain, metaphors help them reach out in ways that others can easily understand and relate to. .

A quick example can be found in William Shakespeare’s famous passage from “As You Like It:”

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;

Instead of trying to endlessly explain the nature of life, he chose an image that his audience were already familiar with. Since they were already watching a stage play, the audience can easily see what he meant with his metaphor!

Your message should be as compelling as a dangling carrot. (Image Source)

While your presentations aren’t expected to be as poetic as any of Shakespeare’s works, they can definitely improve with the use of simple metaphors. While we often associate them with artistic expression, metaphors also play out in our daily conversations. Expressions like “our hard work went down the drain” call to mind images that are familiar and relatable.

Certain metaphors can also convey a more heightened sense of emotion because they’re described in a way that people can easily call to mind. Another example was brought up by presentation expert Nancy Duarte in an article for the Harvard Business Review. She writes, “we [incorporate metaphors] naturally in conversation—for instance, ‘The news hit her like a freight train.’ By comparing the situation to something people already know or can at least imagine, we convey its intensity and urgency.”

Most presentations often end up as a dump of data and information that are too difficult to understand. If you want to keep your audience engaged, you need to capture their attention with something that stands out to them. A recitation of facts and data can easily become boring. But if you can liken your new business model to a game of soccer, your audience will remain intrigued and interested. Like Shakespeare, try to explain a complex concept with the use of a metaphor. Turn the unfamiliar into something you know they encounter in their daily lives.

Moving past cliches: How to come up with a unique metaphor

Obviously, not all metaphors are created equal. Some have been used so much that they’ve become unoriginal. How many times have you heard love likened to a red rose? Or, to be a bit closer to the corporate world, a business goal to a bull’s-eye? If you really want to capture the imagination of your audience, you’ll need to come up with a metaphor that is unique. The most effective metaphors are particular and specific to what you’re describing. It calls on something that you know everyone has experienced or can easily imagine.

For Nancy Duarte, the best way to do that is through a brainstorming session.

Brainstorming is the most effective way to come up with the perfect metaphor. (Image Source)

The perfect metaphor won’t come to you immediately. As Nancy has written, the first things we often come up with are the cliches. Since these are associations we often see and make, they’re the ones that are usually top of mind. To push past them, you’ll need to allot some time for brainstorming.

Sit down away from your computer and start listing down everything that comes to mind. Start with the cliches and try to move to more original ideas. If you’re feeling stuck, just try to think of any word that you think is connected with the previous one you listed down. The important thing here is to keep writing. Don’t stop to edit yourself until you’ve written down everything you can. If you feel conscious about what you come up with, you can turn it into a little game. Set a timer for 9 minutes and don’t stop until your time runs out. You can also give these other brainstorming techniques a try.

Once you’re happy with the list you’ve come up with, it’s time to start pruning it down. Choose the images that are more unusual since these are the ones that will surely stand out to your audience. Above, you can see the example that Nancy came up with. Instead of going for the cliched image of a “handshake in front of a globe” for partnership, she opted for a reef ecosystem and the dance partners Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. If you want to use a metaphor that references pop culture, make sure it’s something that is appropriate for your audience’s demographics. The Astaire/Rogers metaphor won’t make sense to millennials, but perhaps a reference to the Avengers will. Always consider the point of view of your audience when choosing the perfect metaphor.

With your metaphor planned, it’s time to incorporate them with your visuals. It’s one thing to hear you liken your new security plan to a terrifying guard dog, but it’s a different experience to see it right in front of their eyes. If you really want to engage your audience, your metaphor is a great way to enhance the slide decks you present. Instead of using stock images and cliched graphics, you can perfectly illustrate your points with a powerful visual metaphor.

To connect with an audience, you need to urge them to embrace your core message. The best way to do that is by tapping into their imagination. Commonly used in artistic expression, the power of the metaphor can also improve your presentations. Give your audience an opportunity to see a unique presentation by translating your ideas into something that they can relate to.

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Featured Image: Death to the Stock Photo