Bullet 25

The “Golden Key” of Persuasion

Dear Marketing Top Gun:

If you’re willing to use a little imagination, I will now place in your hand a golden key.Ready to play along?OK, vividly picture in your palm a large, gleaming, golden skeleton key.

Feel how heavy it is? It’s made of solid gold.

See how brightly it shines? It seems to pull extra light out of the air itself!

Notice how cold it feels? It’s as if it’s been stored in the refrigerator.

Can you see and feel this key in your palm now? OK, squeeze it. Feel its heft and coolness. See it gleam.


Now you start to feel very pleased to have been given this golden key, because it is priceless!

How so?

As you will soon discover, this rare key will enable you to open numerous treasure chests hiding in plain sight all around you. It will make you uncommonly effective as a persuader, someone known and respected for being able to unlock many hearts and minds with only your words.

Such is the power of the key I hand you now—the golden key of metaphor.



“Metaphor” is based on a Greek word meaning to “carry something across” or “transfer.” Today we use “metaphor” to mean a direct comparison between two or more seemingly unrelated subjects.

You’ll get the idea in a minute, but first let me promise you that this is no mere grammar lesson…

If you heed my advice today about how to use metaphors, you can easily become one of the most persuasive people on the planet. As Aristotle said about the art of persuasion, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.” And the Big A was right too, because nothing persuades as quickly, effectively, memorably, or permanently as a well-crafted metaphor.

As an added benefit, just as the God of Genesis breathed life into man’s nostrils, metaphors will breathe life, color, and power into everything you write.

Let’s Look at a Few Examples…

Let’s say you are an ad agency executive pitching a new account. Youcould drone on about the necessity of having “impactful ideas that capture consumer awareness…blah, blah, blah.”

Or you could begin your presentation like David Ogilvy, with a deft metaphor…

“Ladies and gentlemen, unless your advertising is built on a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”

Instantly, your audience thinks, “A ship in the night? No, we can’t have that!”

That image perfectly sets up a show-and-tell presentation of the big ideas you’ve come up with to boost your clients’ sales.

With a good metaphor, you fuse at the hip two different things and, by a mysterious alchemy, instantly transfer the qualities of one into the other. Good metaphors are wizardry that work real magic in your prospects’ minds. That’s because this process of transferring the qualities of one thing into another takes place instantly, bypassing critical analysis and resistance. All you do is compare A to B in an effective way and voila!your point is made instantly without disagreement. This can make you a magician of persuasion!

A perfect example…

Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan won the understanding and acclaim of the entire country—from Washington to Wall Street to Main Street—when he proudly reported that he presided over “a Goldilocks economy. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right.” That simple metaphor—”a Goldilocks economy”—was more persuasive than a 10-foot stack of economic reports.

Let’s say you are writing about the wisdom of starting early to invest for retirement. You could write a sleep-inducing treatise on the subject. But look at how effectively master investor Warren Buffett does it—with a simple metaphor…

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

Or consider Ben Franklin on the wisdom of frugality…

“Small leaks sink great ships.”

Do you see how tight, how irrefutable, how powerful such arguments are when phrased in an apt metaphor? They yield instant agreement, and that is their magic.

Float Like a Butterfly…

Do you remember Muhammad Ali in his prime? His wit was as quick as his left jab. In prefight banter with reporters, Ali could verbally out-shadowbox even the cleverest reporters, leaving them laughing with metaphors like these:
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”“Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

“Joe Frazier is so ugly that he should donate his face to the U.S. Bureau of Wildlife.”

“I’ll beat him so bad he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.”

“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”

Novelist and journalist Norman Mailer, who covered Ali and was himself a master of metaphor, described the champ’s wit this way: “He always held aces to your kings.”

A Personal Story

When we were young, Pauline and I, while driving on vacation, came upon an adorable little cottage for sale on a little bluff overlooking the ocean. We fell in love with it.

Prices of Hamptons real estate were much lower then, and we bought it, signing a contract to close in May. We couldn’t wait for our dream summer at the beach. But as the closing date drew near, the scheming seller realized he could make even more money if he rented the cottage out to someone else for the summer, so he insisted that he had to postpone our closing until mid-September.

“No way!” howled my lawyer. And then he lowered the boom on the seller’s gambit with this telling metaphor: “You want to sell Gary and Pauline a toy store on the day after Christmas. No fair!” The seller caved; we closed in May and enjoyed the first of many enchanting summers in our cottage by the sea.

Best Sources of Persuasive Metaphors

Your richest sources of metaphor include the Bible, fairy tales, sports, the movies—any source of images that we all know by heart. And I do mean “by heart,” because the mere mention of certain images will automatically trigger in your audience powerful emotions they already harbor, which often enables you to persuade instantly.

For example, when writing to investors, I would shamelessly massage their greed glands by describing “a Sleeping Beauty stock” or“Cinderella opportunity” or “ugly-duckling company about to become a swan.”

If you manage a team trying to outperform a superior competitor, you can instantly give them more confidence by describing them as fearlessDavids about to take down Goliath. If you’re putting a work group together for a special project, it’s motivational magic to tell each member that he or she has been selected for an all-star team…or that they are about to move from summer stock to Broadway…or get the chance to compete “in the Super Bowl of our industry,” etc.

You can instantly illustrate a charismatic leader’s strong hold on his followers by saying that, to them, “he walks on water” or she could“part the Red Sea.” You could call a crooked politician a liar, but it’s so much more amusing—and devastating—to quip, “With his every statement, his nose grows longer.”

You can give a metaphor a humorous twist to enliven any speech or ad. In the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention of 1988, former Texas Governor Ann Richards lampooned the first President George Bush. Describing, in her view, his fumbling attempts to connect with the American people, she lamented…
“Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

You Can Do This!

First identify the point you want to make. Then imagine, just as you did with the golden key above, a metaphor (or comparison) that makes your point for you. It’s fun, like a treasure hunt, like looking for money as you walk down the street in a city where everyone’s pockets have holes.(Hey, I just penned a metaphor! When you get into the habit, it becomes second nature.)

Start looking and you’ll notice useful metaphors everywhere. Collect them like coins and you’ll find many opportunities to spend them on more colorful prose. Just the other day I heard Jacob Teitelbaum MD speaking on the radio about the effect of too much coffee:
“Caffeine is an energy loan shark. What it lends you in the morning it
takes back with heavy interest in the afternoon.”
     Please don’t turn up your nose at the more familiar metaphors. I love clichés, and you should too! They are clichés precisely because everyone already believes them, so using them gives your copy greater credibility. Some examples…

“Old as dirt.”

“Smart as a whip.”

“Cool as a cucumber.”

“Dumb as a box of rocks.”

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“A leopard doesn’t change its spots.”

“Where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

“This product gives your portfolio Gibraltar-like security because…”

“The lion’s share of the profits will go to the few who realize…”

“You are opening a Pandora’s box of problems.”

“A sea change is sweeping across this industry…”

“Overall, we like the agreement, but this clause is a bone in our throat.”

“While most products of this kind are punched out cookie-cutter fashion, ours are custom-made.You will instantly notice the difference. For example…”

“Asleep at the switch.”

“Play hardball.”

“Tip of the iceberg.”

“Roller coaster of emotions.”     The list is almost endless.

Mistakes to Avoid

As with all claims in your copy, don’t exaggerate with metaphors. That reduces credibility and depresses response. Recently I saw an online promotion for a bizop that “sucks in money like a vacuum cleaner on steroids.” A little over-the-top for my taste. I find myself automatically reacting, “Yeah, sure.”

Also beware of using “mixed metaphors.” On page 178 of her entertaining grammar book, Woe Is I, Patricia T. O’Conner features a sidebar cleverly titled “Metaphors Be with You.” In it she writes…

“If you’ve heard it’s unwise to mix metaphors, this is why: The competing images drown each other out, as in, the silver lining at the end of the tunnel or don’t count your chickens till the cows come home.
“Some people are so wild about metaphors that they can’t resist using them in pairs. This may work, if the images don’t clash: Frieda viewed her marriage as a tight ship, but Lorenzo was plotting a mutiny. Since the images of tight ship and mutiny have an idea in common (sailing), they blend into one picture. But usually when two figures of speech appear together, they aren’t so compatible. In that case, the less said, the better.”

Speaking about metaphorical gaffes, I heard one of my all-time favorites when a New York TV reporter was doing man-on-the-street interviews about the meaning of Presidents’ Day. She buttonholed a passerby, asking him, “What would George Washington say if he knew that his holiday has become famous for sales of mattresses, underwear, and used cars?” To which the man somberly intoned, “If George Washington were alive today, he’d roll over in his grave.”

To get better at coming up with metaphors, read John Updike’s stories or Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

Let me leave you with this magnificent example…

Libraries are lined with acres of bookshelves groaning with tomes on the nature of life. Most of these books will remain closed, gathering dust for all their days because they’re impenetrably long and boring. By contrast, marvel at how economically Shakespeare captures a world of wisdom with this single metaphor…

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”

Top Gun, when life gets you down and your days grow heavy with worry or crowded with idiots (or, as my Scottish grandmother called them, “eejits!”), remember Shakespeare’s metaphor and it will give you solace.

It’s all a big play. Perform your role with gusto, but don’t take anything too seriously, at least not for too long. Soon this act will be over, the curtain will fall only to rise again, new players will assemble onstage in fresh costumes, and perhaps you will star in a different role. Shakespeare’s eloquent metaphor can change your whole perspective any time you think of it, which is exactly what a good metaphor does.

Sincere wishes for a good life
and (always!) higher response,
Gary Bencivenga Signature

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