April 17, 2013

One article: 3 powerful metaphor applications

Author and Time senior editor Jeffrey Kluger has certainly mastered the use of metaphor in his writing.  In a recent article published on Time.com he reflects on the reasons why human beings risk their lives to help others and how, in the wake of the horrific Boston bombings, good and evil once again stand in stark contrast to each other.

Throughout this excellent article, he uses powerful metaphors and analogies. The effects they have are varied, here are 3 I could discern (I've quoted relevant excerpts from the article to illustrate):

1. Metaphors are evocative - they capture the emotional nature of the topic and evoke an appropriate response

  • Nature ought to have washed its hands of us by now, and if it hasn’t yet, yesterday’s blasts in Boston should have persuaded it to.
  • The bombs went off, the victims fell, the familiar footprint of flesh and blood and terror was stamped into the streets.
  • Evil begins from a point source—a cartridge of gunpowder, a nugget of uranium, a knot of hate in a single dark mind—and then it blows outward

2. To explain complex concepts in a way everyone can understand,  for example why a mechanistic or reductionist explanation of morality and empathy is insufficient to explain selfless or even heroic behavior

  • And yet, all these answers just smell wrong. You can deconstruct a painting by explaining the salts and sulfides and esters that make up its pigments; you can parse a symphony by measuring the frequency and wavelength of the final crashing chord, but you’re missing the bigger picture.

Or the nature of moral decision making

  • Humans, instead, are guided by a sort of moral grammara primal ethical armature on which decency is built, just the way our language is built on syntax and tenses and conditional clauses. You know when a sentence is right and when it isn’t even if you can’t quite explain why, and you know the same thing about goodness too.

3. To emphasize a key message and make it more memorable

Kluger ends the article with this sentence...

"...it’s equally true that the people who commit all of these crimes are, in many ways, the free radicals of our social organism—the atoms that go bouncing about, unbonded to anything, doing damage to whatever they touch. The bonds they lack are the ones the rest of us share—the ones that make us pull away from the snow fences and kneel in the blood pools. “Morality,” says psychologist and ethicist Jonathan Haidt, “is a team sport.” It’s far better to be part of that team than to be apart from it."

The "free radical" metaphor is very effective in communicating how destructive "unbonded" people can be, much more so than a theoretical description: making the point that it is our community, the bonds created by our innate ability to discern right from wrong and the empathy that ultimately makes us human and drives selfless and even heroic behavior.

I highly recommend that you read the full article with an awareness of the impact these metaphors are having on you as the reader.  Using metaphors and analogies is a skill that every leader, in fact, every person who needs to communicate more effectively, should focus on acquiring.

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