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Metaphors and Similes

Use metaphors and similes to spice up your writing.

By
Stever Robbins,
September 1, 2011
Episode #085

metaphor simileHi! This is Stever Robbins, host of Get-it-Done Guy’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More. Grammar Girl is working on her book this week, and since I do a lot of public speaking, she asked me to talk about how to use similes and metaphors to spice up your speaking and writing.

Metaphors and Similes: Definitions

Metaphors and similes both call attention to how two different things are similar, so people listening to you can apply the qualities of one thing to the other. The difference between metaphors and similes is that similes hit you over the head with the comparison by using explicit words such as “like” or “as,” -- When Jon Bon Jovi sings “My heart is like an open highway,” that's a simile because he used the word “like” to directly make the comparison. Metaphors, on the other hand, don't use direct comparison words. When Tom Cochrane sings “Life is a Highway,” that's a metaphor because there's no word such as "like" or "as."

Metaphors are a bit more subtle. You can remember the difference between similes and metaphors by remembering that simile has the letter l in it, just like the word “like,” which you often use in a simile.

Metaphors and Similes: Uses

People use these figures of speech when speaking romantically. “Dearest, your eyes sparkle as starlight in the water of a deep, cool well.” The speaker is drawing a parallel between his beloved’s eyes and starlight in a well. She doesn’t actually have wells for eyes; if she did, she would slosh when she walked. But her eyes do sparkle, and that is the connection he’s drawing.

You can also use metaphors and similes to help explain concepts that confuse your listener. First, identify the point you want to explain. Then find a topic your listener might know well where that point also comes up. Then use a comparison to link your point to the familiar topic to help your listener understand.

Next: Metaphors and Similes: Examples

Metaphors and Similes: Examples

For example, imagine a teenage comic-book geek interviewing for college. (Yes, that was me. I even owned the original X-Men "Phoenix" series and Superman "Bizarro" issues, which would be worth a fortune today if Mom hadn’t thrown them out.) I, er, HE, might put on a T-shirt and jeans for the interview. You could use superheroes as a metaphor to explain why he should dress up: “You can’t go to an interview in your secret identity. If you want them to think you’re Superman, you have to dress the part. Dress your best!”

You can use metaphors and similes to help explain concepts that confuse your listener.

In this example, you’re drawing a connection between the college applicant and Superman. He likes that. You want to tell him that wearing a suit will help him seem more professional, more “super.” This is the same as the difference between Clark Kent and Superman: Clark, with the secret identity, blends into the crowd, and Superman stands out, in a good way. (It’s amazing what great abs, lycra, and super powers can do for a guy). By using comics, you can make a point about dressing for success.

Here are some more examples:

You can teach the difference between deficit and debt by using a beach metaphor: Many people think "deficit" and "debt" mean the same thing. Not quite. Imagine digging a hole at the beach with a shovel. The debt is the hole and the deficit is the shovel. You can make the shovel (that is, the deficit) larger or smaller, but all that does is change how fast the hole gets bigger. If you want to pay off the debt and fill in the hole, first you need to eliminate the deficit entirely, then start refilling the hole. The image of the beach is a lot easier to remember than than some dry financial explanation. The beach may never look the same again! Also, note that this was a metaphor because I said, “The debt IS the hole,” and not “The debt is LIKE a hole.” No word like “like,” so it's the word without the l – metaphor.

Here's another example.

A friend started discussing podcasts and realized his mother doesn't know what a podcast is. He said, “Mom, a podcast is like a daily radio show that gets delivered to your iPod, instead of over the radio.” His mother knows that radio shows are sound shows that broadcast regularly. The simile of “podcast=radio show” helped her transfer all that knowledge to instantly understand podcasts. That was a simile because he said “Podcasts are LIKE radio shows,” I used the L-word (like) in the sentence, so we use the L-word (simile) to describe the comparison.

Here's one last example.

What is the difference between marketing and sales, anyway? Marketing is projecting an image to customers in your market, and sales is actually going out and getting the customers to buy. It’s like getting a date. Marketing is putting on your coolest clothes, styling your hair to look oh-so-casual, and showing up at a party, ready for love. Sales is actually walking across the room, scoring a phone number, and getting a “Yes” to dinner and a movie Saturday night.

Next time you have a difficult idea to explain, try using a simile or a metaphor. It may take a few extra minutes to think up the metaphor, but once you have it, you can often get your point across faster and help your audience actually remember what you said.

This has been Stever Robbins, filling in for Grammar Girl. If you want to hear more from me, I host the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast called Get-It-Done Guy's Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More. For example, one of my shows tells you how to save time – hours per year – by skipping most voice-mail greetings. And don't forget to subscribe to my show, and all the QDT shows, at iTunes so you never miss a new episode.

Image: Superman and Batman, Chris Favero at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

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