How Leaders Communicate

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Aristotle said “the most important thing by far is to have a command of metaphor”. He added: “For this is the only one that cannot be learned from anyone else, and is a sign of natural genius, as to be good at metaphor is to perceive resemblances. It gives clearness charm and distinction to style.”

Metaphors say things in terms of something else. They create associations and links between things. Shakespeare said: “Juliet is the sun”. Thus, A = B. The best metaphors awaken the senses by evoking images and emotions in the audience. They define things in fresh new ways. They create a mini-story in a sentence. They are remembered long after facts are forgotten. They are sticky. Metaphor has transformational power by creating a bridge between previously unconnected things.

Aristotle understood: “Metaphor is judged not only by its fit to the thing signified, but also by its sound or by the appeal it makes to the eye or some other sense.”

Metaphors work partly because they offer simplifications of the complex world. A metaphor creates an appealing image or picture of an often far more complicated reality.

Long experience in the media has taught me that if you include a metaphor in what you say, it will be quoted. I offer a 100% guarantee on that! It is because metaphor heightens drama and evokes imagery.

John Clancy, in his book, The Invisible Powers: the language of business, found that the six most commonly used metaphors are a journey, machine, organism, war, game and society.

Here is a caution. Remember that George Orwell’s famous essay on “Politics and the English language” (1946) urged people to “never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.”

Examples

“You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.”  Dwight Eisenhower, April 1954.  The domino theory became a powerful explanatory tool for explaining American military involvement in Indochina to stop Soviet and Chinese expansion.  Powerful but, as it proved, wrong.

“Future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled unless world leaders get a grip.” Christine Lagarde, IMF, Davos, 2013.

“The tributes paid to Yitzhak Shamir (former Israeli Prime Minister) after he had died called him stone, granite, basalt and cast rock. These, though, sounded too monumental. This tiny, square-built, bushy browsed man saw himself as something smaller and sharper. Shamir meant a thorn – as from any shrub of the Judean desert – that when brushed would stab back, and when hidden in a shoe would keep pricking.” Economist, July 2012

“He is writing cheques that his body can’t cash.” Andre Agassi – quoted in article about Raphael Nadal. Weekend Australian, August 2012.