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How do you simplify a complicated business? How do you describe it in a way that people immediately get? This is the central question faced by nearly everyone struggling with an elevator pitch, Career Day at their kids’ school, or questions from strangers at cocktail parties. One deceptively simple answer is: Metaphor.

I routinely work with clients who consider their businesses nearly impossible to explain to prospects, let alone regular people. “The technology is complicated.” “There’s no tangible outcome, so it’s really hard to talk about.” “We do so much, how can we boil it down to one thing?” The answer often lies in finding the right metaphor. For instance, one client of mine – a professional services firm that had struggled for years to explain themselves ­– recently coalesced around the concept of the “bridge”: a metaphor that captured their value proposition in a way that even their grandmothers could understand.

Metaphors aren’t just the stuff of poets. Human brains are hardwired to grasp them. The granddaddy of all metaphors are “primary metaphors”, which are so rooted in our minds that we hardly notice them. They’re extremely powerful.  Here’s what the master verbal branding consultant Christopher Johnson says on the subject, drawing on the work of Joe Grady at Cultural Logic.

“Joe Grady, a principal at the consulting firm Cultural Logic, calls this kind of metaphor primary metaphor and wrote a dissertation showing just how important it is. Primary metaphors pervade our language and thoughts, and provide conceptual shorthand that crops up all the time…Grady identified many primary metaphors in his research. Here’s a list of them taken from his dissertation:

AFFECTION IS WARMTH

IMPORTANT IS BIG

HAPPY IS UP

INTIMACY IS CLOSENESS

BAD IS STINKY

DIFFICULTIES ARE BURDENS

MORE IS UP

CATEGORIES ARE CONTAINERS

SIMILARITY IS CLOSENESS

LINEAR SCALES ARE PATHS

ORGANIZATION IS PHYSICAL STRUCTURE

HELP IS SUPPORT

TIME IS MOTION

STATES ARE LOCATIONS

CHANGE IS MOTION

ACTIONS ARE SELF-PROPELLED MOTIONS

PURPOSES ARE DESTINATIONS

PURPOSES ARE DESIRED OBJECTS

CAUSES ARE PHYSICAL FORCES

RELATIONSHIPS ARE ENCLOSURES

CONTROL IS UP

KNOWING IS SEEING

UNDERSTANDING IS GRASPING

SEEING IS TOUCHING”

What’s your metaphor? Discover the right one, and your complicated business will suddenly seem irresistibly simple.

This post features an excerpt from Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011). Also check out Christopher Johnson’s blog at The Name Inspector