Pitching using metaphor: how to communicate complex business ideas and still ignite your audience.

A few years back, one of the heads of a large American consulting firm asked me if I could help him create a new sales deck for a service he wanted to relaunch that helped his clients better manage corporate project risk.

He wanted to move fast, so I asked him to come prepared with some material before our meeting. Sure enough, he came with a typical PowerPoint deck, similar to those you might see every day: business mumbo-jumbo, blue gradients and all.

As part of my process, I start by listening.

“OK, can you explain to me what your service is about?”

After a few minutes I still didn’t fully understand the nuance.

So I went with this question: “If your elderly neighbor asked what you did for a living, what would you say?”

Brian paused, gave the question some thought and replied: “Well, I’d say I help my clients avoid train wrecks”.

He paused. And then he added, “but I guess I can’t say that.”

The thing is, that’s exactly what Brian should say.

With this metaphor, I understood what he meant right away. All of a sudden the conversation started to be a lot more relaxed and playful. Just like tossing a ball back and forth, we were adding thoughts right and left. It unleashed our creativity. Ultimately, we decided to use this—not just on his neighbors, but with all his clients, too.

If you are struggling to quickly explain your business, your project, your value proposition, your technology or your product, a metaphor is a powerful tool for business storytelling. Let me explain why, and give you a few tips on how to go about finding one.

1. A metaphor is like a trojan horse

You may know the story of the Trojan Horse: Odysseus wanted to invade Troy, so he created a giant wooden horse and hid his men inside. The Trojans thought the horse was cool, being on wheels and all, and they thought, “this is fun, we like horses, they are the symbol of our city”, and pulled it within the gates.. and then Odysseus and his peeps popped out and “persuaded” the people of Troy to accept them as victors.

I’ve white-washed the story a bit, I admit, but the Trojan Horse is itself a metaphor for the power of metaphor in a business pitch: it’s a way to get into people’s minds by presenting them with an easy and exciting concept first.

When thoughtfully presented, a good, creative metaphor will not only help your audience understand the concepts you are talking about but also use the power of the unexpected to grab and keep their attention.

No matter how skillfully built, no straightforward business story can say the same.

2. A powerful tool for business storytelling

Use a metaphor as a shortcut around the hurdles of the obstacle course between your idea and your listener. A metaphor is especially useful when you don’t have a lot of time or when people aren’t familiar with your product or industry, because it takes people less time and effort to understand.

Use a metaphor to take business storytelling from dry and boring to memorable and—dare we hope?—even lively. It helps prevent dry jargon. And definitely prevents the bored audience/glazed eye effect when people shut off because of words and more words and mentally go “Huh?”.

Arguably even more important, the process of brainstorming a good metaphor checks on the alignment of your team. Even fairly in-touch teams can be working with multiple takes on what their product is or does, especially in the case of startups building investor pitches. If your team brainstorms their metaphor together, it actually helps them create understanding amongst each other as well as develop a common way to explain it to others. And because they are doing it together, everyone uses the same metaphor (and essentially even the same words) when talking to others. Yes, we’re talking about messaging consistency.

Finally, once you have a good metaphor, your material visually designs itself, because you know what imagery to use, what photos to pull, and what your visual story will look like.

In the case of Brian, my team and I put together a reading deck that used the train wreck metaphor to introduce and explain his business. We stayed away from the actual train wreck images, but some of the visual design intentionally looked like a train wreck.

3. Use a metaphor early and with everyone

Whether you want to pitch to investors, have your executive sponsor your plan, or persuade stakeholders with a new product vision, a metaphor is a powerful tool to make your message riveting and convince your audience.

The two most ideal times to break out your metaphor are right in the opening of your elevator pitch or investor pitch, or when someone at a networking event asks what you do.

Always keep in mind that your goal during this type of short interaction is for people to like you and decide they want to hear more. Nothing else. It’s not the time to go into the nitty-gritty details of your business.

In your opening, use the metaphor you prepared. It should hook your audience. Get straight to it. Resist the temptation to say what your business or project delivers. This leads you into the technical jargon trap. You can give them all the details once you have their attention.

I also often get asked whether it makes sense to use a metaphor even when you’re pitching to experts in your field.

I know that metaphors, because of their simple nature, sometimes feel like they may be “beneath” people. I’ve had clients tell me that because they are pitching to people in their own field of expertise, they don’t need a simple explanation. “People will get it!”.

But that’s somewhat like not wearing your seatbelt because you’re just driving to the store—a false sense of security. We assume because people are in the same industry as us that they know what we’re talking about. That’s not always true. And even worse, because they are in the same industry, they’ll be afraid to tell you that they don’t understand, fearing their candor may make them look stupid.

In these cases, still use your metaphor.

Maybe just say “This is how I’d say it in layman’s terms”. With this, you’re demonstrating that you know your product so well that you can explain it simply. People like investors look for that skill in a leader. Complexity doesn’t always win.

Remember the famous quote by Albert Einstein “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

4. How do you “find” your perfect metaphor?

Understand that it’s not really that easy to find the perfect metaphor for your company, product, or business process. Don’t expect to find one under pressure, or quickly. It can take days. I’ve even known some companies that find a good one, but years later find a better one randomly.

Here are my tips and tricks for developing one that will work for you:
  • Ask your whole team to work on it, rather than sitting alone in your office. Great metaphors often come through conversations and a free exchange of ideas.
  • Try explaining your concept to someone who has no idea about your business, with no prerequisite knowledge to help them figure it out. Such as your 8-year-old kid or your 88-year-old aunt Betty.
  • Keep it short and the connection simple: If you have to spend a lot of time explaining it and what it has to do with your product or service, it’s not a good metaphor.
  • The best metaphors are the ones that have nothing to do with the business you are in. So, stay away from your area of expertise for a moment.
  • Use something that people already know. Remember, metaphors are powerful because they call on common areas of knowledge.
  • Still stuck? Try changing your environment. Go to a restaurant (or a bar), go on a walk, take a car ride, go swimming. When you do these things, you’re putting your body in motion while you are thinking, which triggers new connections. It’s like doodling, but bigger.
  • Record your thoughts or conversation rather than taking notes yourself. You will avoid turning brainstorming into wordsmithing. Even better, have someone visually record your ideas. Riff, chat, repeat: until the lightbulb goes off.

5. And the train keeps on coming…

In the end, we created a great pitch deck with Brian. But we delivered even more: alignment with his sales team.

How did this happen, you ask? Once we had the metaphor, we took the content and put a reading deck together. We asked the team to go test it and to come back with feedback. People were really excited about something that would help them make a complex idea more riveting. The salespeople even bought into it. Usually, they’ll reject a new sales deck if it’s not theirs, like a body rejects new tissue.

Then one of the salespeople asked us for help because he was scheduled to have a conversation with a CEO that notoriously wouldn’t even look at a standard presentation deck.

Instead, we worked the train metaphor into a large train-map image (think a placemat) that showed the different directions the conversation could go from different “stations”. These included things like “the approach”, “the ideal scenario”, “the team”, the results”, etc. This was designed to keep the dialogue on track with clients, highlighting Brian’s team’s consultative approach to handling any conversation. It worked so well, Brian has his entire team now use the train map for all sales meetings.

The metaphor—that thing he “couldn’t say”—worked so well that it helped tailor their business story into multiple formats and for multiple audiences, while, informing the sales tactic for good measure.

Have you told your elderly neighbor what you do lately?

Try it and let me know how it went.
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