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The Memorable Magic of Metaphor

There are times when ‘telling it straight’ to use a metaphor, just doesn’t cut the mustard!

Sometimes we want to get a message across without naming the elephant in the room (apologies for the abundance of metaphors I might use in this post 🙂 ) because the nature of the subject is delicate, sometimes we sense that just ‘telling it as it is’ might cause offence or come across as insensitive and that’s where metaphor can come in and save the day.

The word metaphor comes from the Greek ‘metaphora’ – ‘to carry over’ and in its simplest form is a comparison between 2 things that share common characteristics. There are many forms of metaphor, for example simple metaphors such as “the whole situation was a storm in a teacup” or “her velvet voice caressed the souls of the audience” or primary metaphors such as “time is money” and “if music be the food of love”.

Today I want to share with you the memorable magic of extended metaphor where we look to convey a message using something different but with a similar comparison.

Why use a metaphor when the truth speaks too? Let’s look first to our brain to answer that question.

When we listen to facts and data there 2 key parts of our brain involved (in blue on the image) that have the role of receiving, processing and decoding the language and data. Both of these parts are found in the left hemisphere which has a preference for logic (the whole left brain right brain theory is complex and worthy of a separate blog).

When we offer our message in the form of a metaphor or story however we have a neural party (blue and green)! Every one of our sensory cortices is activated as we listen to the language and create our own sensory experience depending on the language being used. Our motor cortex is also activated so whilst we hear facts and data, we experience metaphor and story and with our whole brain.

Our visual cortex is by far the largest of our sensory cortices so when we offer a message in the form of story or metaphor, we can fully engage with it and ‘see’ or imagine what’s going on. This is of particular importance because when we create visual images they act like sticky post-it notes for our memory and are remembered for far longer and more deeply than facts and figures alone.

Here’s a quick test – as you read out these simple metaphors what images are you seeing?

  • How do you eat an elephant?
  • She was quiet as a mouse wearing felt slippers
  • He tackled the issue about as tactfully as a bull in a china shop

Let me give you an example of an extended metaphor in action. I was contacted by a trainer and facilitator who used my metaphor creation process to work with a team that was undergoing considerable challenges, was dysfunctional and were about to lynch their leader. Alice decided to use the metaphor of a runaway train and presented this concept to the team opening with a story. The team members immediately picked up on the metaphor citing that they’d prefer to put the whole management team in a separate carriage and uncouple it!

Alice had her work cut out.

What then ensued was a respectful dialogue on how to get everyone ‘on board’ and invite the management team back into the carriage. The team members felt comfortable using the language of the train metaphor and as the conversation continued, guided by Alice’s expert facilitation, they were able to carry over (metaphora) to the real issue and leave the train analogies behind.

I would love to hear from you how you use metaphors to get your message across and become more memorable and magical!

Clare

 

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Introduction and Chapter One of ‘A Sprinkling of Magic’

To give you a flavour of what is included in ‘A Sprinkling of Magic’ I thought I’d share with you the introduction and Chapter One – enjoy and please feed back!

Introduction

Stories have captured our minds, hearts and imaginations since before we could talk and they still hold that magic ability to transfer, transmit and transform our message so that it is uniquely understood by every listener.

The aim of this book is to take you on a journey of practicality balanced with imagination and to provide you with a selection of valuable tools, advice, ideas, tips, techniques and strategies to further enhance your levels of confidence and expertise in being a master storyteller – whether personally or professionally.

Storytelling today is as important as it ever was, if not more so. In this world of information overload, technology dependence and super speedy shortcuts, it is the stories that we remember. Stories bring to life the messages and lessons that we want to convey. It is through our stories that people will have their ‘aha’ moments, gain insights into themselves and their values and find ways to contribute to the world that will make the greatest use of their talents and gifts.

‘A Sprinkling of Magic’ is a special hybrid of a book and a course or guide. I have deliberately sequenced the content so you can follow the steps to creating your own metaphors and stories and, along the way, be able to capture your thoughts and ideas on paper. This is a workbook and is expected to be scribbled on, underlined, highlighted and used time and again so please don’t worry about being precious with it! Also, I have used gender terms (he, she, his, her, him) interchangeably for ease of reading.

This guide is specifically designed to help business leaders, facilitators, speakers, teachers, trainers, writers and communicators deliver their message in a way that the meaning is understood and assimilated. It’s a culmination of my years as a manager in corporate business and as an inspired public speaker and facilitator. I have included everything I have learned along the way, from my love of English at school to my years of learning, using and sharing Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), and what has worked (or not) during my years as a people manager on a mission to motivate.

When I talk about stories I’m not just referring to fairy tales and folklore, fables and parables; it’s a far broader scope. I encapsulate how we can share our experiences with others for effect, and how we elaborate on facts and figures to give them meaning and context. People remember stories far more than dry data. I am inspired to help you not just engage your audience but to captivate them.

You don’t have to be eloquent, you don’t have to be polished and you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to go out and start telling your stories … preferably with a Sprinkling of Magic!

Read, digest, experiment, practise share and enjoy the journey.

Chapter One – The Power of Storytelling

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin …”

My Early Experiences

These words were spoken every day at 1.45pm as my mother settled me down on her lap to hear a daily storytelling program on BBC Radio called ‘Listen with Mother’. Storytelling was a significant part of my childhood. In addition to ‘Listen with Mother’, my Father was a great storyteller and I would cherish our time together at the weekends when he would recount the adventures of Marco Polo, the marvels of the Aurora Borealis and many of the Hans Christian Andersen stories.

As an adult in business, I increasingly understood the power of stories in bringing people with me to work together as a team, understand one another better and accept and embrace difference. It was in sharing my own stories that people came to see the person behind the title, in all her strengths and vulnerabilities, and this led me to my lifelong quest to become a good manager.

In 1996 I was introduced to Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and another layer of sophistication was added to my storytelling repertoire. I learnt how to use a special type of metaphor to help people make the changes they desired in their lives and to find their own solutions to their unique problems.

We are well aware of the particular significance storytelling has in ancient and indigenous cultures. I was born in the United Kingdom and currently live in Australia where, for the indigenous Australians, stories are the essence of who they are, as the story of creation is passed down through the Dreamtime.

Elders around the world continue to educate the younger generations and pass down their values, heritage and traditions through story. In many cultures still today these laws are not written, yet they have lost none of their gravitas.

Today I use stories and metaphors liberally, yet selectively, in my workshops and speaking engagements. Each and every story I recount is delivered in a different way, according to the audience’s needs and of all the positive feedback I receive it’s the stories that seem to resonate most. My aim for you is to reconnect with the power and magic of story, just like you did as a child.

Why is Storytelling so important? 

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten” Rudyard Kipling

Stories enable us to share truths without the confrontation. We give and are given permission to uncover ‘the elephant in the room’ – without naming it. We can begin to address challenges, issues, problems and conflicts without coming across as preaching, condescending or having an ‘I know better’ attitude.

For example, have you ever been on the receiving end of a diatribe, a patronising ‘telling off’ from the boss, where it’s been made very clear that “things have to change around here”?

What impact has this had on you? Have you ever come away from a dressing down feeling great? Have you ever been hauled over the coals and given orders to “change your attitude or else”, then walked away in gratitude and immediately changed your behaviour? 

NO

There’s a good reason why stories have been used for centuries to convey laws, values, traditions and, in more modern terms, best practice. It is because they are a respectful and universally accepted mode of communication.

I’m not advocating never getting to the point, yet in my experience, storytelling can be a most effective foundation layer for the subsequent conversations that need to be had. An invitation to reconsider our thinking or behaviour is often best wrapped up in the form of story.

To illustrate my point, I would like share a story with you that illustrates the importance of storytelling:

There once lived two amazing creatures, one called Truth and the other called Story. Each was beautiful in her own way, but how could they determine which was the most beautiful? They decided that each would walk down the street and whichever creature was befriended the most would be considered the most beautiful. 

A coin was tossed and Truth was to go first. 

Along the street Truth paraded, sashaying here and there, but rather than gathering friends, doors were closing behind her until she found herself at the end of the street, alone and crying. “I know,” she said, “I shall show myself totally naked and the villagers will not be able to resist me.” So off came the clothes and Truth returned along the path in all her naked glory.

Far from the welcome she was expecting, not only did people return to their homes, they closed the shutters on their windows and locked their doors. Everyone hated naked Truth. 

Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Story found her, Truth was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Story gathered her up and took her home. 

“Here Truth, take my mantle and go once again into the streets of the village,” said Story. 

Clothed in the mantle of Story, Truth walked once more down the village street and watched as the doors and shutters opened and the villagers came out into the street smiling and ready to hear what Story had to share. 

[This story is based on a Jewish parable attributed to Rabbi Jacob Kranz, an 18th century Eastern European storyteller and teacher who was a also known as the Maggid of Dubbno] 

Reading this parable needs no or little explanation (in my opinion). It conveys the message beautifully and paints a vivid picture for the listener. 

Stories are unique to the Individual

It is for good reason that I do not provide an interpretation of each of the 101 Inspiring Stories and Metaphors for Business and Life. No, it’s not because I am lazy.

As unique individuals with varying histories, experiences, perceptions, beliefs and backgrounds, our interpretation of the story being told is equally unique. You only have to watch 2 politicians going head to head after an ‘event’ or listen to 2 passionate football fans, each defending why and how his side lost, to see that it’s all in the interpretation.

If I tell you my version of the moral of the story directly, I am potentially limiting you, the listener from finding alternative meanings and making additional learnings. I may also come across as undermining your intelligence which could break rapport.

There is a small caveat here which is linked to the next section and to personality, so be sure to read on to get the whole picture. 

We are born Experts in Story-listening

How long have we been listening to stories? Hopefully, for the majority of you, the answer would be ‘most of our lives’. We are conditioned from very early on, sometimes from the womb, to listen to stories and be whisked off into new worlds of learning and creation, so much so that, like Pavlov’s dogs who ended up salivating at the ring of a bell (because they knew that food was coming) the very mention of the word ‘story’ brings our awareness to attention – which means we are open to listening.

I am not talking about manipulation or putting groups of people into trance to accept whatever you have to say (which as a qualified hypnotherapist I know isn’t possible anyway); I am talking about using a medium for communication that allows the receiver of the message to develop and subsequently therefore ‘own’ her individual interpretation and lesson. 

We remember Stories

When we listen to stories we engage our whole brain, i.e. both left and right hemispheres.

Different parts of our brain are responsible for different functions e.g. the logical sequence of the story, the literal language, the facts, the chronological development and the rationale are functions of certain areas of the brain. Separate areas of our brain are responsible for painting the pictures, making patterns and connections, seeking meaning and finding the emotion in the story. Together they create the memorable story.

We store these memories in different parts of our brain. For example, long term knowledge and facts are stored in the cerebellum, recent knowledge and facts in the prefrontal cortex, experiences of the past in the hippocampus and certain emotional memories in the amygdala. The memory of learning a skill resides in the basal ganglia.

When we recall a memory it’s a complex process of filtering from different parts of the brain and often this memory can be ‘enhanced’ as it is recalled. This may not be exactly the biological or scientific explanation but it is one that you and I can both understand.

To illustrate my point, can you ever remember arguing with a sibling because you have both recalled the same event from the past and are describing it completely differently? In a way you are both right, as each person has a unique interpretation of the event and, having taken ‘the long road to recall’ from different parts of the brain, it’s no wonder.

So, if this happens, just agree to disagree and laugh the next time it occurs!

Stories can bypass the Conscious Mind

When we are in story-listening mode we actually move into a state of altered consciousness; a light trance so to speak. When were you most read stories to as a child? Probably at bedtime; and why did our guardians read to us at bedtime? Usually to get us to go to sleep. The brain forms and deepens connections from all the times we have listened to stories and creates a relationship to the original stimulus e.g. relaxation, escapism, fantasy etc.

Our memory acts like a string of pearls, where experiences are linked together and strengthened every time they are repeated. This ‘wiring’ is particularly strong in the first seven years of our life when our brains will make more neural connections than at any other time of our life.

Think back to a time when you read your favourite book – did it become more boring with every reading? No, in fact it was quite the opposite, with excitement building – so much so that if the reader dared to skip a chapter or miss even one word, regardless of how sleepy you were, you catapulted them back to the present moment and corrected them!

When we are in this mild trance state, our subconscious mind is more open to receiving and our conscious mind, together with our (potentially limiting) beliefs, attitudes, opinions and values, takes a ‘back seat’. We get out of our own way, so to speak and become more receptive. Don’t underestimate this fact when it comes to wanting to help people see a particular situation from a different perspective. No-one will ever do what they don’t want to do; however they will be more open to considering new perspectives when in this receptive mode.

In business, think about when you are bringing a disparate group of people together for a new project or you are embarking on a major change initiative. How useful, effective and important is it to have everyone more open to alignment of the strategy, objectives, values and behaviours that will maximise the success of the project?

Stories Stick 

When we’re presented with a story, a metaphor, or any learning which is new to us, the brain kicks into gear and literally lights up.

Our brain contains around 79 billion neurons, each with around 10,000 synaptic connections – that’s about a quadrillion, give or take a few. (Quadrillion = 1,000,000,000,000,000). These synaptic connections fire off and we create new neural pathways when we learn something new.

The first time we learn something new it’s like a human leaping a huge chasm – the first leap is the hardest. Once we repeat the learning (or something very similar to it) it becomes easier each time, as does our ability to recall the information or make use of it. This is why we always encourage people to share or teach what they have just learnt so they can cement those learnings in their own neurology.

The more captivating the story, the more our neurology will fire, the deeper our learning is embedded and the more thoroughly the message is understood and the lesson is learned.

When it comes to lighting up our brains, there’s a memorable saying that originates from Hebb’s Law:

What Fires Together, Wires Together”

Stories go Deep

When we listen to a story we are listening on multiple levels, both consciously and subconsciously. As creatures of meaning, our brains start to sort for similarities with the story that is being told and start to make connections. These connections might bring up memories that are stored in distributed areas of our brain and, as mentioned previously, each time they are recalled, they are slightly changed.

Because stories infiltrate at the deep structure or subconscious level, they can make a strong impact on us and inspire us to change behaviour where other methods of imparting information have been less successful. The deeper the lesson is learned, the easier it is to change behaviour or thinking as new neural pathways are formed and shaped. 

We connect with Stories

Why do many people love soap operas? (I’m an exception here). It’s often because they can relate to the characters and see themselves in the plots and storylines. Soap operas often reflect the real life trials, tribulations and triumphs of our own lives. This is no different from the stories we tell and why we find our audience so quickly synthesising with the storyline.

Because we are creatures seeking meaning, as we listen, we start to identify with the characters, the situation or the message. This is a fundamental success criterion for why stories work. Once we’ve identified with the story, we can then link it back to our unique reality and we may be more open to discussing the meaning in the message and expanding our levels of understanding.

Stories give us permission to be human, to have our quirks and foibles and to relate to the rollercoaster of life. We see ourselves as victim and victor, hero and villain. Stories let us know that it’s okay to be us, warts and all.

2 From 1929 – 1950 the behavioural psychologist Karl Lashley conducted a series of experiments on rats to identify the part of the brain where memories are stored. He trained the rats to find their way through a maze then removed different parts of the cerebral cortex to identify and locate the ‘memory trace’. He was unsuccessful as the rats that had parts of their brains cut or removed were still able to find their way through the maze. He concluded that memories are not stored in any single area of the brain; rather they are distributed throughout it.

We all want to be the Hero at some stage

Joseph Campbell in his book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ (first published 1949) takes us back to the beginning of time, of stories and tales of mythology that all follow a structured path and have done so for thousands of years, across all cultures.

This path includes a call to adventure and the initial refusal of that call, through fear or a sense of obligation. There then follows the many trials, challenges, adventures and temptations and at some point, following commitment to the journey, a wise guide appears. When you share your story, you are effectively being that wise guide and enabling your audience to embrace and uncover the hero within.

Authors, scriptwriters and film producers have used Campbell’s structure called ‘The Monomyth’ to great success in films such as ‘The Wizard of Oz’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter’. When we enter their world we become lost in the story and emerge from the cinema feeling strangely strong and, well, rather heroic!

George Lucas, the Director and Producer of ‘Star Wars’, worked actively with Campbell in the development of the characters and the plot. He also used ancient temperament theory (personality type) when developing the personalities of his main characters.

Songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison (The Doors) and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) consciously used the heroes’ stories and weaved them into their song writing.   

Stories transcend Time and Technology

Fads may come and go. Who knows through which medium we will be accessing our information, knowledge and entertainment in 30 years’ time? What will still be alive and kicking I imagine (including myself), will be the power of the story, told face to face, in families, communities, offices and on stages everywhere.

With the advent of interactive internet, people can become even more immersed and engaged in stories, helping to shape the storylines and advertisers are using this to huge advantage as they tease their fans ; for example before the launch of a new book or movie. See also the section on stories for business and in Chapter 7. 

In Summary

Stories are as old as the human race and are hard wired into our neurology as an engaging, respectful and effective way to communicate our message and the lessons of life. As you read through the book your scope of what constitutes a ‘story’ may expand.

If, at this stage, you are more comfortable listening to stories than telling them, follow the progress through each of the chapters to build skills, structure and style.