How to Add Selling Power to Your Direct Mail and Web Copy Using Metaphors

American author and public speaker Orson Scott Card said, “Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.”

This is one of the reasons metaphors are so powerful in copywriting. They can simplify complex principles into something easily understandable by your reader.

You can use them in a variety of ways …

Paint a word picture which lowers sales resistance by comparing your product or service to something your prospect is already familiar with …

Demonstrate superiority over your competitor …

Or use them to build trust and credibility by emotionally connecting your product or service with something your prospect holds true.

Done right, metaphors can emotionally connect your reader and create colorful, memorable, and powerful images.

Take these Hall of Fame headlines:

“There’s a New Railroad Across America”

“The Plague of the Black Debt”

“There’s a New Railroad” takes a complex investment strategy idea and makes it simple for the reader to understand.

And describing a prediction of an economic depression is much more provocative and visual when described as a plague.

The problem with metaphors is that they can be difficult to find and use well.

So the trick with copywriting is knowing how to build them and when to use them. Today, I’ll take you through using metaphors, including the three types of metaphors. Then I'll give you some tips and exercises which will help you build your own original metaphors.

The three types of metaphors

When creating metaphors, conflict is essential because all metaphors essentially compare unlike objects. Songwriter coach and author Pat Pattison describes it this way in his book Writing Better Lyrics: “Put things that don’t belong together in the same room and watch the friction: dog with wind; torture with car; cloud with river.”

Pattison defines the three types of metaphors as:

“An expressed identity metaphor asserts an identity between two nouns.” For example, let's say in your metaphor self-doubt is a parking brake. These come in three forms:

  • “X is Y” (self-doubt is a parking brake)
  • “the Y of X” (the parking brake of self-doubt)
  • “X’s Y” (self-doubt’s parking brake)

“A qualifying metaphor uses adjectives to qualify nouns, and adverbs to qualify verbs.” For example, snail-like Corvette or float heavily.

A verbal metaphor is formed by conflict between the verb and its subject and/or object. For example, he bruised his ego.

Four tips for using metaphors

  • Avoid mixing metaphors. Don’t mix two metaphors together in one sentence. This takes away their power and dilutes their meaning. For example, “He’s been burning the midnight oil at both ends.”
  • Use sparingly. Metaphors can seduce, inspire, and delight readers, but they can be overused. Save your metaphors for when they will do the most good or to support your strongest points, such as clarifying ideas that are difficult to explain and creating vivid, attention-grabbing imagery. Use metaphors when you need to change your prospect’s mind quickly and make an idea stick. Or when you know using the “true facts” alone will take a very long time and more space than you have to convince your prospect. Avoid using metaphors to make points which are minor or don’t support your argument.
  • Choose appropriately. The idea is to create a potion of emotionally charged imagery. But choosing the wrong comparison can come off as cliché, boring, or inappropriate. For instance, one time I had a client send me his idea which said, “Create a tsunami of sales.” Normally, this might work well, but at the time, the tsunami in Japan was still very fresh in people’s minds. So always be sensitive to what’s happening in the world around you.
  • Consider the real meaning. As you can see from the “Hall of Fame” headline examples, metaphors can have deep meaning. Peel back the layers and make sure what your metaphor says is what you really mean to say about the product, service, company, or person you’re promoting.

How to build your own unique metaphors

Pattison says, “Most of us have the creative spark to make metaphors, we just need to train ourselves a bit and direct our energy properly.” In order to help train yourself to create original metaphors, Pattison gives several exercises to help light your spark.

Exercise #1: “Playing in keys”

The idea here is that words group together in close relationships like “musical notes belong in the same key.” Because metaphors work by “revealing some third thing that the two ideas share in common,” finding words with close relationships can create a bountiful harvest for metaphors.

For example, let’s say you want to come up with a metaphor involving rules. You’d brainstorm words that relate to rules or ruling. Here are some words that relate to rules: commandments, guidelines, govern, King Arthur, golf, school, constitution, chivalry, worship, and rubric.

When you combine them, you can often find the “collisions” Pattison refers to that are metaphors:

A golf lover worships the game.

The constitution is the King Arthur of our society.

Chivalry is the rubric of a good man.

To create good metaphors, Pattison suggests you ask two questions:

  1. What characteristics does my idea (rule) have?
  2. What else has those characteristics?

Usually, asking yourself the second question swings the gate open to a rush of possible metaphors. Often, the relationship between two ideas isn’t obvious at first. For example, you wouldn’t think of putting chivalry and rubric together unless you first could see that they both link to “rules.”

Exercise #2: Linking adjectives and nouns

For the next three exercises, it works better to have at least one partner, so grab your writing buddy or peer review group. One person or group makes a list of interesting adjectives while the other person or group makes a list of interesting nouns independently. Then you combine your lists. This often results in some thought-provoking combinations. For example:

Adjectives Nouns
Dreamlike Guitar
Tangled Garden
Misunderstood Corvette
Vacant Penthouse
Truthful Holiday
Broken Rainbow

Use the combinations as is or try mixing things up. For instance, “snail-like Corvette.” Then take a few minutes to write sentences using the combinations. For example:

Since you left, my dreams are all vacant.

He’s constantly losing things and having to pay to replace them—it’s like living with a broken rainbow.

Exercise # 3: Linking nouns with verbs

Basically, you repeat the process, same as in exercise #2, except instead you use nouns and verbs. Again, try jumbling up the list for new combinations and try writing sentences for each combination.

Exercise #4: Linking nouns with nouns

Repeat the process again, except—you guessed it—make two lists of nouns.

Exercise #5: Coming full circle

After you’ve practiced these exercises for creating “accidental metaphors” for a while, Pattison says you’ll be ready for purposeful searching that will activate the process. He says his five-step process is “guaranteed to open your metaphorical eyes and keep them open.” For each step, take your time. This doesn’t have to be done in one hour, one day, or even one month.

To make this exercise the most useful, I start with words from my “idea factory” that relate to common objections or themes that come up in my writing projects. This helps me to continually improve descriptions in my writing projects and have “readymade” metaphors when I need them.

Step one: Make a list of five interesting adjectives. Then search for exciting nouns to go with them. Continue searching until you find a “breathtaking collision.”

Step two: Make a list of five interesting nouns. Now go and find great verbs to pair with each one.

Step three: Make a list of five interesting verbs. This time, seek out the perfect noun to go with each one.

Step four: Make a list of five interesting nouns, and this time, find adjectives to go with each one.

Step five: Make a list of five interesting nouns and find another noun to go with each one.

Practice these exercises, and you’ll not only find you’re able to create better metaphors, but you’ll also soon notice words that create motion, excitement, and power.

You’ll discover that this helps you be more aware of word choice in general. That leads to more colorful descriptions in your everyday writing projects. For example, where I might have said, “Increase customer desire,” in the past, now I might say, “Magnify customer desire.” Where I would have said, “There’s a big gap,” I now would say, “There’s a Grand Canyon–sized gap.”

Learn how to make metaphors, and you’ll also find you add more punch and selling power to your direct sales promotions and web copy. You’ll deliver better results, making you and your customers happy.

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Published: September 28, 2011

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