“If we’re on the same page about nipping this thing in the bud, why don’t we just hit the ground running?”

Not exactly the stuff of great literature, but unobjectionable ­– at first glance. Look again and you’ll find that as well as being ugly, that sentence is chaotic. It contains three distinct metaphors, all mixed up. Can you spot them all?

Getting meta about metaphors …

All three metaphors – ‘on the same page’, ‘nipping this thing in the bud’ and ‘hit the ground running’ – are, like many expressions in modern business communication, ‘dead’. Because they have been around for so long, we forget the images they once evoked.

When we describe somebody as ‘flying off the handle’, do we expect our listener to visualise an axe blade hurtling furiously through the air? When we write the phrase ‘toe the line’, do we suppose our reader will picture a runner crouching tensely behind a starting line? Probably not, considering how often the phrase is written as ‘tow the line’.

What’s the issue?

The dimmer the imagery of your metaphors – the ‘deader’ they are – the more likely you are to unconsciously mix them up.

Think about it. Reading the sentence that opened this post, was your mind flooded with competing visions of the pages of a book, a secateurs’ blade slicing through a new flower, and feet pounding on the earth?

If that jumble of metaphors didn’t strike you as odd, it’s not because it made sense. It’s because – like so many tired figures of speech – it didn’t strike you at all.

Does it really matter?

Most of us are so fearful of trying out new phrases that we forget to worry about the damage overusing the old ones can do. But who wants an uninterested – or, if you’re planning on going on for a while, a potentially unconscious – listener or reader?

Mixed metaphors aren’t just confusing. In fact, nothing could be clearer than the message a mixed metaphor sends. “They are a sure sign”, wrote George Orwell, “that a writer is not interested in what he is saying”. A medley of metaphors tells your reader that you haven’t put much thought into your words. A reader receiving that signal is unlikely to put much thought into them either.

In using worn-out expressions, we miss an opportunity to engage with our audience. According to the Social Science Research Network, 65 per cent of us are visual learners. That’s why it’s so important to build imagery into our presentations, pitches, reports and emails. Used thoughtfully, visual language paints a vivid picture of the idea we’re trying to convey in our interlocutor’s mind. It can be a key element in effective communication with clients.

What’s a writer to do?

To infuse fresh and stimulating imagery into our communications, all we need do is take the visions we see in our mind when we think about a particular plan, project or person, and express them verbally. There are no rules, and it isn’t a difficult process. But it does require us to closely examine our own ideas in a way that ready-made phrases – which express ready-made ideas – do not. And surely that’s a good thing.

Our visual language might take the form of a description, a simile or an anecdote. Or, if inspiration should strike, we could even try to coin our own metaphors. Instead of ‘take it to the next level’ we could say, ‘let’s move this palm into a bigger pot’ or, er … ‘let’s go up a belt loop’.

Well, inspiration can’t always strike.

 

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