Lectern with speeches on it.

Writing Speeches Using Similes, Metaphors and Analogies for Greater Impact

Lectern with speeches on it.

Using the right words and phrases in your speeches and presentations can help you make a bigger impact and be remembered. Similes, metaphors and analogies are three figures of speech that you can use to inform, influence and inspire your audiences. You can also use them in your marketing copy and business documents.

Let’s look at some examples of similes, metaphors and analogies, and how they are used in speeches, presentations and other formats.

Similes in Speeches and Other Formats

A simile is a rhetorical figure expressing comparison or likeness that directly compares two objects through a word such as like or as.

Here are a few examples from ancient to recent times:

A room without books is like a body without a soul.  – Cicero

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.  – Albert Einstein

A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.  – Frank Zappa

Henry was 18 when we met and I was queen of France. He came down from the north to Paris with a mind like Aristotle’s and a form like mortal sin. – Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor in The Lion in Winter

Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.  – Martin Sheen as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now

Metaphors in Speeches

A metaphor compares one thing to another, but asserts that one thing is actually another.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.  – William Shakespeare

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.  – Sir Winston Churchill

The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.  – John F Kennedy

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of a nation into the beautiful symphony of brotherhood.  – Martin Luther King

Nationalism is both a vital medicine and a dangerous drug. – Geoffrey Blainey

The term iron curtain is an example of how powerful metaphors can be for creating an image in the mind of listeners. Churchill was not the first person to use the term. But after he used it in a speech he delivered in 1946, it became a popular term for describing the closed societies of the Soviet Union and the satellite nations that were under its influence after World War II.

Another great example of the power of metaphors in speeches is Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. Throughout the speech Dr King used well over 20 metaphors to create pictures of the ideas he was conveying. A few include:

a great beacon light of hope

flames of withering injustice

joyous daybreak

long night of their captivity

manacles of segregation

chains of discrimination

lonely island of poverty

vast ocean of material prosperity.

In order to gain a better understanding of the skilful use of metaphors in context of the speech, you can read the complete text at www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.

Given the effectiveness of metaphors in the world’s greatest speeches, the question is not whether to use them, but how to create effective metaphors and use them in your speeches and presentations.

Analogies in Speeches

An analogy is an extended metaphor or long simile. One example can be found in a speech I wrote for a vocational school graduation ceremony. The speaker wanted to emphasise how important it was for the graduates to have goals after competing their studies. I used the following analogy:

In graduating today, you have reached the pinnacle of your experience at Melbourne Vocational College. But this is only the beginning. There are much bigger goals and dreams ahead of you.

It’s like climbing a mountain. As you climb, you often can’t see the top. Just when you think you’ve reached the pinnacle, you look up and realise that it’s only a plateau and the peak is still way off in the distance. These distant peaks are the dreams and goals that life has in store for you. They are out there, but they must be worked for.

Analogies are effective for explaining intangible concepts. For example, when giving a motivational talk on how our limiting beliefs can hold us back, Denis Waitley used the analogy of his friend’s dog that would not move when its leash was tied to lightweight chair. The dog was feisty and wanted to play with guests when they visited but falsely believed that the chair was too heavy to be able to move. From a young age the dog was tied to a post outside after being given baths and assumed that it would not be able to move when its leash was tied to any other object. Waitley draws an analogy from the story by comparing it to people’s mind sets:

Unfortunately, too many of us are like Spike. We find ourselves in a situation in which we assume we’re helpless, and we give up. Some past experience tells us we can’t move ahead, and we give up without even trying. Sometimes only a five-pound weight is holding us back, but as far as we’re concerned, it weighs 500 tons, and we can’t do anything but sit down, like Spike, and work our way into a state of depression (from “How to Sharpen Your Imagination” in Insight by Nightingale Conant, No 107, 1991).

Analogies can be helpful when explaining complex ideas or technical processes. When writing for an executive with an Australian IT company, I used the following analogy to explain a challenging project where software that is an integral part of running the mobile phone network was being updated. With millions of users depending on the continuous operation of the network while the update was being made, there was no room for error as the company representative explained:

Updating the telecommunications software was like changing an engine on a 767 jet at 37,000 feet. We were changing one of the engines and needed to ensure that the plane kept running and didn’t fly around in circles or crash.

Analogies are also very effective for explaining large numbers. A good example of using an analogy to put numbers into context appears in the television series Cosmos. In the original series, Carl Sagan spoke about the history of the universe. Given the enormity of the figures, he compared the 15-billion-year life of the universe to a calendar year, which he dubbed the Cosmic Calendar. In the updated version of the series, released in 2014, host Neil deGrasse Tyson presents the same concept of a Cosmic Calendar, but with a revised universe age of 13.8 billion years.

Here’s a summary of the explanation of how it would look if 13.8 billion years were put into a single year:

  • January 1st – the big bang occurs

January 10th – the first stars appear

January 13th – stars coalesce to form small galaxies

March 15th – the Milky Way Galaxy forms

August 31st – the Sun appears

September 21st – basic life appears on Earth

November 9th – life that breathes, eats, moves and responds to its environment can be found

December 17th – larger plants and animals are found in the sea

Final week of December – forests, dinosaurs, birds and insects all evolved

December 28th – the first flower bloomed

6:24 am on December 30th – an asteroid collision hitting the earth made dinosaurs extinct

The last hour of December 30th – humans evolved

11:59: 46 on December 30th – recorded history begins

11:59 on December 30th – humans paint first pictures

14 seconds to midnight – humans start writing

7 seconds before midnight – Moses is born

6 seconds before midnight – Buddha is born

5 seconds before midnight – Jesus is born

3 seconds before midnight – Mohamed is born

2 seconds before midnight – Columbus lands in America

1 second ago – science is used to reveal nature’s secrets and laws.

The documentary included superb graphic recreations to show these events superimposed over a calendar year, which we all can relate to.

What to Avoid When Using Similes, Metaphors and Analogies in Speeches

Similes, metaphors and analogies can be a powerful tool but be careful when using them in speeches. Some metaphors have been used so many times that they are “worn out”. George Orwell stressed this point in his essay “Politics in the English Language” when he wrote, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

In addition, metaphors can fall flat or miss the point. In 2003, The Washington Post ran a contest to see who could create the worst analogies. A few of the choice ones included:

Even in his last years, grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

Yes, these were specifically created to be bad, but they are good reminders to be careful when creating similes, metaphors and analogies.

The Challenge of Using Similes, Metaphors and Analogies in Your Speeches and Presentations

One drawback is that it takes time, effort and creativity to come up with similes, metaphors and analogies for speeches. But if you give yourself enough time and apply your creativity, you can create these figures of speech to give memorable speeches and presentations that inform, influence and inspire your audiences. You can find more on our speech writing services here.

Michael Gladkoff