Your life is a singular journey; a generation is a collective journey.
We’re circling an 11,000-degree fireball as it shoots through a limitless vacuum at 52 times the speed of a rifle bullet.
If this dirt-covered rock we occupy was the size of a standard schoolroom globe covered with a coat of varnish, the thickness of that varnish would represent the air we breathe.
Like it or not, we’re all in this together.
All seven and a half billion of us.
When it gets dark tonight, look up at the stars. You’ll be looking out the window of our spaceship.
If we could aim our 11,000-degree fireball at the nearest of its siblings – those things we call the stars – it would take us 63,000 years to get there even though we would be shooting through space at 52 times the speed of an 865 mph bullet.1
Right now you think I’m going to talk to you about cultural tolerance or global warming or world peace or some other big idea.
But you’re wrong.
My goal today is to teach you how to use metaphors to make your data more interesting so that you can persuade more people.
I borrowed the metaphor of the earth being a spaceship from Buckminster Fuller and the varnish on the globe came from Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.
A metaphor relates the unfamiliar to the familiar, the unknown to the known, effectively translating your data into a language your listener can understand.
A good metaphor sharpens the point of your data.
Once you’ve chosen your metaphor, your second challenge will be to select nouns and verbs that carry the voltage of mild surprise.
I might have said, “The earth orbits the sun as it moves through space at 0.0004842454 au. (astronomical units).” But I chose instead to say, “We’re circling an 11,000-degree fireball as it shoots through a limitless vacuum at 52 times the speed of a rifle bullet.”
“We’re circling” causes you to see yourself in the story. This is the first step toward reader engagement.
“11,000-degree fireball” is more vivid than “the sun,”
“shoots through a limitless vacuum” is more exciting than “moves through space,”
and “52 times the speed of a rifle bullet” packs more of a wallop than “astronomical units.”
Brilliant communication isn’t a product of wit or charm or even talent.
Preparation is what it takes to click the brightness of your message up to high beam so that it pierces the darkness like a lighthouse at midnight. In the words of Alec Nevala-Lee, “A good surprise demands methodical work in advance. Like any form of sleight of hand, it hinges on making the result of careful preparation seem casual, even miraculous.”
“Like a lighthouse at midnight” wasn’t technically a metaphor, by the way. It was a simile. Metaphor: The earth is a spaceship. Simile: The earth is like a spaceship. A simile feels like a metaphor and can be used to accomplish the same effect.
- Write down what you want to say. Don’t overthink it. Just get some words on paper.
- Find a metaphor that relates your information to an idea that your audience already understands.
- Now look at what you wrote and replace the weary, dull words with energetic, bright ones.
Want to know a secret? There’s really no such thing as good writing. There’s only good rewriting.
Ernest Hemingway won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. Each time he came to a place where the words weren’t flowing, he would set his work aside and answer some correspondence so that he could take a break from, “the awful responsibility of writing” — or, as he sometimes called it, “the responsibility of awful writing.” 2 In a letter to 22 year-old Arnold Samuelson in 1934, Hemingway advised that after writing something you think is pretty good, you should, “leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work. The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before.”
Having the courage to write badly is the first step toward brilliant communication. The second step is to look at that first draft and say, “How can I make this better?”
One final piece of advice: Read great writing, for “As you read, so will you write.” Gene Fowler said it this way, “The best way to become a successful writer is to read good writing, remember it, and then forget where you remember it from.”
Brilliant communicators develop stronger relationships, achieve higher goals and make more money.
Why not become one?
Roy H. Williams