I once worked for a weekly agricultural journal in Oregon. Along with cows and plows, I occasionally covered the State Legislature. I used to joke — and, to be honest, also complain — the boredom of covering long committee hearings was interrupted only by the tedium.
The exception was covering a House committee chaired by a lawmaker named Chuck Norris. I’m not making this up, although this Chuck Norris was a retired Army colonel from north central Oregon. Norris was well known in the Oregon Capitol for two things. The first was his extensive knowledge of water issues. It was said he knew every drop in the Columbia River. The second was his frequent use of metaphors. He was forever opening a can or worms or tilting at windmills. Sufficiently inspired, he could became a metaphor Mixmaster going hammer and tongs like a bat out of hell. To the extent it’s possible, he made the arcane measures governing water rights interesting and the legislative process entertaining.
I don’t always use metaphors myself. But when I do, I use them sparingly and judiciously.
Metaphors get a bad rap, justifiably so if they perpetuate meaningless expressions, they’re mixed or both. Consider, for example, the imagery this account evokes: It was raining cats and dogs the day I went to visit an old flame. Did the cats and dogs extinguish the flame? Maybe if they were flabby tabbies and pudgy poodles. Ouch.
At the same time, metaphors offer an effective shorthand for complex concepts. Consider what Shakespeare had to write about the drama of the human condition: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Better yet, consider the lyrics made famous by Elvis Presley: “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.”
As a writer, one of my favorite metaphors reminds me of the importance of word choice. According to a quote attributed to Mark Twain, the difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.
Fascinating, you say. But what does all this have to do with business? A lot, actually, because metaphors remain as much a part of business and business culture as other aspects of our lives.
I’m willing to bet there are business owners and managers using metaphors at this very moment, no doubt flinging them about willy-nilly. Who’s picking low-hanging fruit? Who’s getting their ducks in a row? Whoever they are, they’d better hurry. Otherwise, the window of opportunity will slam shut. See what I mean?
Metaphors serve a useful role in not only effective writing, but also effective business management. There’s awesome power in evocative language. It’s a matter of using those metaphors that express an idea or concept in a few words. And avoiding — like the plague, I suppose — those metaphors that have been repeated so often they’ve lost meaning.
Although well worn, one of the best metaphors suggests businesses don’t sell products or services so much as they provide solutions to their customers’ problems. I like that metaphor because it propounds a couple of crucial ideas. The best businesses cater to their customers and strive to meet their individual needs. Even if they provide products and services available elsewhere, such businesses provide unmatched customer service. They really do solve their customers’ problems.
To borrow yet one more metaphor, good writing and good business management is a lot like kissing. It can be just as engaging — if you know your audience and customers. Also, kissing improves with practice.