Purple Cow. Duct Tape Marketing. Blue Ocean Strategy.
Recognize the names of those books?
Is any one of them actually about cows, tape, or the ocean?
Not even remotely. Those titles use metaphor to describe different marketing strategies, ideas, and techniques in a way that we can instantly recognize and understand (a purple cow stands out, duct tape is useful, and a big blue ocean is deep and wide).
Metaphors and their cousins similes are linguistic dance steps that take the lead for our audiences in a quickstep of understanding. (<– That’s a metaphor, by the way.)
When I was in high school economics (a compulsory course, I assure you) my teacher desperately wanted to be cool, and desperately, desperately wasn’t. (He was a high school economics teacher, after all.) I’ll never forget the day he was teaching us about the ratchet effect and, with great dramatic flair, pulled an actual ratchet out as a visual aid. He was so proud.
I’m joking about it now, but clearly it stuck. Other than supply and demand, I’m not sure I could name you a single other economic theory, despite his best efforts.
Consider metaphor and simile, then, advanced tools for ratcheting your content up to the next level. (<– Another metaphor.)
Why should I use metaphors and similes?
Metaphor and simile are so powerful for one very simple reason: We humans react much more strongly to visual, emotional language that rational facts and figures. They’re like caffeine for your content. (<– Another simile.)
In Made to Stick, the authors outline six attributes that “sticky” ideas have, and two of them are concreteness and emotions — both of which are evoked with a good simile or metaphor.
Some people are probably frowning skeptically at their computer screens right now. “Why would I want to say something is like something else instead of just saying what it is?” they’re probably thinking. “Isn’t that confusing?”
Let’s talk about pomelos.
Wikipedia defines a pomelo as a fruit native to South and Southeast Asia that is usually pale green to yellow when ripe, with sweet white (or, more rarely, pink or red) flesh and very thick albedo (rind pith).
But, if I were trying to convince you to buy or taste a pomelo, I might tell you that it’s like an extra large, extra sweet grapefruit. (<– That’s a simile, by the way.)
Which description gives you more information?
Technically, the Wikipedia entry will give you more empirical information, but my description probably helps you actually picture a pomelo — because it relates it to something you already know and understand.
That’s the power of metaphor and simile.
What’s the difference between a metaphor and a simile?
You don’t really need to know the difference between a metaphor and a simile to write them, but you’ll look smarter when you can talk about the difference at your next cocktail party or book club. 😉
A simile is when two things are compared using the words “like” or “as.”
“Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant filled with odd little waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don’t always like.” ― Lemony Snicket
In this example, fate is like a restaurant.
A metaphor is when two things are compared directly.
“Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.”
― Truman Capote
In this example, life is a play.
Of course, in these examples, the metaphors and similes are phrases, but even a single word can be a metaphor. Do you like to jumpstart your readers’ creativity or re-ignite their passion? Both of those words convey a metaphor — because you don’t literally apply jumper cables to creativity or a match to passion. (I hope.)
This is all a part of how your writing should show, not tell. Just telling someone that there’s a lot of information on the Internet is pretty boring, when you could say, “If television’s a babysitter, the Internet is a drunk librarian who won’t shut up.”
― Dorothy Gambrell, Cat and Girl Volume I
Here, because I can, are some other wonderful examples to inspire you:
- “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East . . .” — Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie (click to tweet)
- “In the eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun…” — The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane (click to tweet)
- “She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.” — The Adventure of the Three Gables, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (click to tweet)
- “The water made a sound like kittens lapping.” — The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (click to tweet)
- “The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.” — Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell (click to tweet)
- “Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.” — George Orwell (click to tweet)
- “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.” — As You Like It, by William Shakespeare (click to tweet)
- “I felt like one of Apollo’s sacred cows — slow, dumb, and bright red.” ― Rick Riordan, The Last Olympian (click to tweet)
- “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (click to tweet)
- “Men’s words are bullets, that their enemies take up and make use of against them.” — Maxims of State, by George Savile (click to tweet)
Using metaphor and simile in your content marketing.
Getting into the habit of writing with metaphor and simile will make your writing infinitely more powerful. You can use this technique:
- in titles and headlines; as I showed at the beginning, you can quickly and easily create intrigue and a memorable image
- in opening your blog posts and articles; start with a concept your readers understand, then compare it to something they don’t
- as the overall theme of a blog post; I call this cross pollinating with a different audience
- helping someone visualize a difficult concept; Ronald Regan explained in 1980 that the nation’s debt would be “a stack of thousand dollar bills 67 miles high”
- or even as an effective closing statement when you want to make an emotional punch.
Do you use descriptive similes and metaphors in your writing? How could you use them more frequently or effectively? Let me know in the comments below, or just tell me your favorite. 🙂 Here’s one more for the road:
“Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.” ― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather