If people were to think about metaphors at all – and they don’t – most would probably consider them a play on words, or a literary trick suitable only for poetry or novels. This is not only a gross misunderstanding of metaphors, it’s also a great pity. Metaphors are the simplest and yet sophisticated tool that we have for reaching people. And that is why metaphors apply to you, whether you wish to sell life insurance, win over a crowd with a speech, or feel more understood by friends and loved ones. So allow me now to formally introduce you to your new best friend: the metaphor.

Metaphors are a figure of speech, a word or a phrase that has a meaning other than the literal. Technically speaking, similes are also a type of metaphor, but for our purposes here they have been disqualified. To clarify the difference – a simile suggests similarity between two things (for example, ‘This cereal is like eating cardboard.’), whereas a metaphor essentially marries seemingly disparate ideas. Let’s take a familiar example from William Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It:

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’

This line, in a handful of words, gives us an entire world view. This would not have been possible without the metaphor of the stage. It opens the door to many possibilities – for example, humanity (the actors), may be viewed as deliberately false or insincere. Another possibility is that the actors are given no choice but to act out ‘their parts,’ given to them by an almighty director. One is born to be the villain, another the victim. Entire theses could be written on the implications of this one sentence, and no doubt have been. That is one of the great powers of metaphors: they expand in the listener’s mind, and leave them with plenty to think about.

Which brings us neatly to the commercial applications of metaphors. And where better to start than with the story of Ben Feldman, a life insurance salesman whose masterly use of metaphors not only made him rich, but a legend in his field. During the 1970s and 1980s, Feldman alone sold more life insurance than 1,500 New York Life Insurance agencies combined. In 1992, after Feldman had a cerebral haemorrhage, New York Life held a sales contest in his honour?. And the winner of that competition was: Feldman. Making calls from his hospital bed, he closed more than $15 million in contracts that month. What could possibly power such success? You guessed it: a metaphor.

Death not being a popular subject with customers, Feldman required another phrase. What he came up with was ‘walking out of life’. This phrase suggested a breach in responsibility to loved ones upon dying, which required immediate redress. Insurance, as Feldman presented it, was the only solution. ‘When you walk out, your insurance money walks in,’ he’d say. The implied moral responsibility here is clever enough, but there is more: when we hear the phrase ‘walk out,’ we can actually see ourselves walking out the door. Here is the true magic of metaphor. When a metaphor involves an action (such as walking out), or one of the five senses, we experience the words as if we were truly there. This is that makes metaphors the closest thing we have to virtual reality in language. Now you can use metaphors to put people in your shoes.

For more information on figures of speech, visit our Language of Leadership post. We also cover this topic in our book, Speech Power: The Leader’s Guide to Creating Powerful Speeches and Presentations.