Do Your Metaphors Rock?

Chris Cornell of Soundgarden

I’m looking California, and feeling Minnesota…

That metaphor is from the 1991 Soundgarden song Outshined, written by front man Chris Cornell. He shared an interesting anecdote about writing those very personal words in a magazine interview:

“I came up with that line — ‘I’m looking California / And feeling Minnesota,’ from the song ‘Outshined’ — and as soon as I wrote it down, I thought it was the dumbest thing. But after the record came out and we went on tour, everybody would be screaming along with that particular line when it came up in the song. That was a shock.”

Instead of the “dumbest thing,” those are the most famous six words Cornell has ever written. In addition to being a fan favorite, the line inspired both a movie title and an ESPN catch phrase whenever Minnesota Timberwolves player Kevin Garnett was in the news.

Why did it work? Because with those six words, Soundgarden’s audience understood instantly what Chris Cornell was trying to convey. That’s the power of metaphor. Cornell is no slouch in the lyrical department, and yet he was taken aback by how well this particular metaphor worked.

So, how do we non-rock-gods know if our metaphors are any good? That they will actually help us inform and persuade our readers in the way we intend?

As with all writing, the only true gauge of effectiveness is to put it out there and see if it works, just as Cornell did. But there are checklist items that we can refer to when formulating and evaluating metaphors before unleashing them.

Here are five things you’ll want to take into account when it comes to using metaphor in your writing.

1. Find the Sticking Point

Using minor metaphor throughout your copy is fine, but you can truly capitalize on the technique at potential points of confusion and resistance. If a particular point is difficult to understand, craft a metaphor to smooth it over. When attempting to persuade or sell, identify potential objections and reframe the issue via a relatable metaphor.

Don’t waste your metaphorical juice on points that are easy to understand or non-objectionable. Rather, look for potential sticking points that impede the reader’s understanding or acceptance.

2. Close the Loop

It’s tempting for some to come up with a great analogy and just let it stand with the basic comparative expression. Subtlety is nice when it comes to challenging works of art, but you’re shooting yourself in the foot from a communications and persuasion standpoint.

Just like express benefits work better than implied promises, you’ve got to expressly circle back to your point and close the metaphorical loop to ensure maximum comprehension. Don’t be arty, be clear.

3. Beware Mixed and Unmatched

You’ve heard you should never mix metaphors. It’s an excellent rule of thumb, but copywriters effectively mix metaphors all the time. The real worry is metaphors that cause confusion instead of clarity. Mixing metaphors can easily do that, but so can metaphors where the comparisons are so tenuous that they work against you.

For example, in my last post I wrote “barrels them down a slippery slide to your call to action.” That’s a mixed metaphor, but the two are so tightly integrated that I went with it, because it creates a vivid mental image that’s also logically consistent. On the other hand, “She waltzed across the dance floor like a putt on a slow green” is not a mixed metaphor, but there’s no logical connection for the left brain to latch onto. Remember, metaphor catches attention via the emotive right brain, and closes the deal via the logical left brain.

4. Deliver the Dénouement

Chris Cornell nailed a perfect metaphor with his fans in only six words. Odds are it will take more than that for you and me. This is similar to the problem of failing to “close the loop” and expressly relate back to your point, but it’s really a lack of sufficient elaboration to truly drive home your point.

For example, “closing the loop” is analogous to the dramatic climax of a film or novel—the point of highest tension or drama in which the outcome is made known. To make sure the point is truly made, you follow with the dénouement—the absolute conclusion where all conflicts are resolved. That’s where clarity and persuasion truly live.

5. Attack of the 800-Pound Cliché

Cliché is the bastard child of metaphor—often perfectly worthy and yet generally looked down upon. The true test of whether or not any metaphor is appropriate depends on the context, not whether a linguistic snob scoffs at you or gives you props.

On one hand, a cliché performs badly because it is simply too familiar. The impact of the cerebral imagery is diminished by the sheer redundancy of the expression. On the other hand, a familiar metaphor can be comforting when wading into complex analogies. If it’s really an “apples and oranges” situation and that makes the reader more comfortable, then do it. Otherwise, opt for original metaphors that spark the reader’s imagination in a whole new way.

Why Bother?

I’m not going to lie to you… it may take you longer to nail the perfect clarity-inducing or objection-slaying metaphor than it takes to write the entire rest of the piece. But done correctly, it’s the element that will make the most difference.

Previously in the Blogging Metaphorically series:
Blogging Metaphorically


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Reader Comments (28)

  1. says

    Sometimes a great metaphor just pops in my head…

    And sometimes it’s like trying to get the stick to fetch the dog.

  2. says

    At least Chris Cornell wasn’t scared to try it out. I think a lot of us are too scared to use metaphors and come off as nonsensical.

    Btw, think the Lakers and Garnett are meant for each other? :)

  3. says

    Rico, I’ve got to agree with you about “at least Cornell wasn’t afraid to try it.” He even thought it was a stupid line, but put it out there anyway. And, it’s a good thing, because it worked!

    I think sometimes, we have to turn off our inner editor and just see what happens. It won’t always work, but sometimes it’s worth taking the risk and seeing what happens. If we don’t experiment with new techniques, metaphors, etc., we run the risk of having our writing become stagnant over time.

    Great article as usual, Brian!

  4. says

    Brian – great post. As the publicist for amazing Austin, based – writer/musician/artist Bob Schneider, I can tell you that it is astounding to me how prolific songwriters are in establishing metaphors that take on a life of their own.

    I read Bob’s lyrics often just to see how he does it. My favorite is from his song “Cmon Baby” – “she slipped and fell and broke her heart and now the only thing she does well is fall apart.”

    hmm. is it a metaphor or just a really good lyric?

    either way – great post on metaphors.

  5. says

    I do indeed and he is great. Way beyond the Scabs stuff and last year he toured with the Dixie Chicks. In the Fall, he’ll go into the studio and record a new album and right now he’s on tour all over! He’s also got a great web site that he does – . ( I think I officially just did PR for him here now.:>)

  6. says

    Brian you make a very valid point when you say that coming up with the metaphor may take longer than writing the whole of the rest of the piece and I think this is what puts many people off. I personally, however, believe it’s worth the time because if you do it well enough it will remembered for a long time to come and so therefore will the product / service you were advertising.

  7. says

    I have no idea what this article even says because as soon as I saw Chris’s picture my ADHD kicked in and I went over to my finetune for some ‘black hole sun’!

    THANKS for that bit of awesomeness!!! Soundgarden rocks!

  8. says

    Can I join your Inner Circle Gold Mastermind Metaphor Coaching Club before I slide down the slippery slope of anonymousness and die in a cloud of cliches that cloak me like the dead of night 😉

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