Photographee.eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

There’s a good reason that Prudential tells you to “Get a piece of the Rock," Allstate offers to help you avoid the troublemaker “Mayhem," and Geico is “So easy a caveman can do it.” Advertisers—and research scientists—have learned that metaphors can be more effective than facts alone at influencing your decisions and actions.

It’s because metaphors, like stories, bypass your critical thinking, influencing your deeper, and more powerful, intuitive mind. This is the part of the mind that is the seat of your decision-making and behavior, and it works by implicit association not rational analysis. The drivers of our decisions are often the emotional coloring on top of the literal facts. Metaphors are among the best way to generate these evocative internal and often hidden intimations and feelings.

A study by Stanford University psychologists demonstrates just how powerful a single word can be in influencing a course of action, provided that one word is a metaphor: In the study, participants read short descriptions about rising crime rates in a fictitious city and then answered questions about the city. The purpose of the research was to measure how their answers changed depending upon how crime was described—as a "beast" or a "virus."

Assistant professor Lera Boroditsky and doctoral candidate Paul Thibodeau found that study participants were about 20 percent more likely to recommend a law enforcement-based approach when rising crime rates were framed as a “beast." But when test subjects were told it was a “virus," they were more inclined to address the issues through social reform, such as new programs aimed at boosting the economy or underperforming schools.

The descriptions participants read also included troubling statistics about increased crime—one report indicated that there were 10,000 more crimes reported in 2007 than 2004, and that the number of murders had increased from 330 to more than 500 during that time. When subjects were later questioned about what had been the most influential aspect of the report in shaping their decisions on how best to curb crime, they almost universally believed it was the facts while only a small minority identified the metaphor.

They were wrong.

The reality is we humans are really feeling beings—not thinking machines. We make decisions based on emotion more than logic. Metaphors are often more effective at making us feel differently and as a result they can make us more inclined to act differently. As Boroditsky put it: "People like to think they're objective and making decisions based on numbers. They want to believe they're logical. But they're really being swayed by metaphors."

So if you want to make a poignant point, or influence others, use similes and metaphors and not just facts and figures. The best business leaders are often experts in the art of persuasion and storytelling through the use of metaphorical comparisons. For example, when Warren Buffet was asked about his first large investment, which involved the purchase of his namesake holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, he said, “We went into a terrible business because it was cheap. It’s what I refer to as the ‘used cigar butt’ approach to investing. You see this cigar butt down there, it’s soggy and terrible, but there’s one puff left, and it’s free. That’s what Berkshire was when we bought it—it was selling below working capital—but it was a terrible, terrible mistake.” While some may bore you with easily forgotten financial facts, Buffet doesn’t just tell stories, he sells them through clever use of metaphors.

For your next business meeting, think about creating a sound bite not easily forgotten but easily passed on to others, one that provides a multisensory metaphorical handle that others can see, feel, and even taste, invoking deeper imagery and richer associational territory than that same old “eye chart” spread sheet.

To learn more about the many ways you are being swayed often without your knowing, check out my book or my other articles, and follow me on Twitter.

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