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The Persuasive Power of Metaphor

Kevin O'Gorman

October 21, 2020 at 11:39:54 PM

Framing crisis through metaphor saved jobs.

The CEO of a small, struggling medical equipment company asked us to help develop and gain government funding for his company’s dire need for retraining – in one month. This was a company of fifteen different cultures trying to work together while being eaten alive by two larger competitors. They were fast running out of money. As politically connected as we try to be, the request seemed impossible. And yet, challenging, interesting, and worthwhile.

We arranged to have the CEO address the next public meeting of the state government’s grant board. Knowing our CEO’s audience – a panel of well-meaning, and very political, government appointees -- we asked these questions. What would appeal to their identity and role in this public setting? What other areas of life paralleled the urgency of this situation? Did this other situation have an implicit and compelling logic that, upon adoption of our metaphor, would lead to the desired actions? Would the board positively identify with aspects of the metaphor that appealed to themes and identities involving helpers, professionals, status, and authority?

At the approval board’s next meeting, the CEO strode to the podium and began, “Our company’s products help people maintain the quality of their lives. While we can save lives, you can save companies and the people who work for them. Today, many companies, sick and healthy, will be brought before you, Like any good team of doctors, you must determine who is in most need of your help now. I can tell you, if we have to wait for the normal approval process, we will bleed to death in your waiting room.”

Taking up the metaphor, the board turned to each other and discussed their role and process within the medical metaphor. They asked each other, How are we like doctors; how did they make their decisions; and what were their criteria for determining when to make exceptions. They then maneuvered around their own process and funded the retraining needs of our client as ‘an emergency measure.’

Metaphor structures thought, decisions, and actions because it supplies identification, context, and an implied logic. It is a story people can use to shape their understanding. Metaphors and stories are core areas of our expertise.

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