We sell communication short if our language does not include the color provided by similes and metaphors.
Our written and oral presentations become more vivid, engaging and effective when peppered by these rhetorical flourishes. Used strategically, similes and metaphors make our writing and public speaking more visual and influential.
Let’s not assume, of course, these grade-school lessons have been retained all these years later. Let’s consider some definitions, then some examples.
Both similes and metaphors are figures of speech. The difference, though, is that a simile explicitly compares two unlike things, typically using “as” or “like” as the statement’s pivot point. Here are a few examples from comedic novelist Carl Hiaasen.
Then he swung the club and yowled like a hemorrhoidal bobcat.
It passed momentarily, like acid reflux.
Her tongue was swollen like a kielbasa.
And two more, the first from Tom Wolf, the second from John Updike.
He rose heavily, as though the weight of the ages was pressing down upon him.
His body had swollen in the middle, like an old-fashioned clay jug.
The metaphor is a term or phrase applied to something to which it is not literally applicable, but we do so to suggest a resemblance. In other words, something used to represent something else. William Shakespeare provided us with one of history’s most famous metaphors.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
Martin Luther King Jr. increased the power and emotional impact of his public presentations by using vivid metaphors such as…
“The manacles of segregation.”
“The quick sands of racial injustice.”
Those constructions are the handiwork of skilled novelists. But we can use similes and metaphors to score point just as readily in our business writing. Metaphorical examples include…
The CEO’s extraordinary leadership skills made him an oak among willows.
The company, which had been a Ferrari for years racing ahead of its competition, suddenly turned into a spluttering Ford Pinto.
Similes might include…
The daily drizzle of bad economic news fell upon the company leadership like acid rain.
Word that the FDA had approval the new drug created so much excitement among board members the room started pitching and rolling like a carnival ride.
We can amplify the power of our language and add clarity, imagery and euphony with carefully crafted similes and metaphors.
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If you would like to see a terrific piece of public speaking, check out the Valentine’s Day address by Esther Perel on TED.com. On its face, the presentation’s title, The Secret to Desire in a Long-term Relationship, is titillating and relevant to just about every human being. But there’s a lot more going on here than a titillating topic and universal relevancy. What makes the presentation so potent? While watching the video, notice that Perel succeeds with her audience by doing the following…