Lateral Thinking Through Metaphor

4 min read

Thinking laterally (aka differently) about your products, services or processes is the first and most important step on the road to innovation. Without moving away from your existing problem-solving mindset, you can’t expect a significantly different result.

As Edward de Bono put it in his seminal work on the topic, “Lateral thinking stimulates new pattern formation by juxtaposing unlikely information.” And to this exact point, there is no device that I’ve found better at juxtaposing “unlikely information” than the metaphor. Imagine thinking about your marketing team not as a simple collection of employees trying to promote your company’s products but, rather, as a flock of geese headed south for the winter. The power of this image and the dependence the geese have on one another for their ultimate survival can restructure your thinking about how teams work in profound ways. This is the inherent power of reimagining your current products and processes as metaphors.

Metaphors by definition

I’ll start with the definition of a metaphor. A metaphor is, quite simply, “a thing that is representative or symbolic of something else.” And it is precisely in the search to find something “representative” and “symbolic” of your concept where the creative journey begins.

There are countless examples of songs that use metaphor to more powerfully convey a message that might otherwise come across as either boring or cliché. “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones comes to mind. I’m almost certain the Stones weren’t actually singing a song about unrefined sugar.

The benefits of using metaphor can be broken down into four main areas. First, they are rich in sensory language. Second, they infuse emotion into otherwise uninspired subject matter. Third, they make any message more memorable. And, finally, with the ultimate goal of improved innovation, metaphors require you to engage in lateral thinking when confronting familiar concepts, ideas or issues.

1. Metaphors are rich in sensory language

Appealing to the five senses—sight, smell, sound, taste and touch—in any writing reaches your intended audience in a way that non-descriptive language can’t possibly achieve. To demonstrate the power of sensory language, I’m going to start by reminding you of the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Communicating visually is one of the single most effective ways of distilling your message into a form that people will understand quickly and completely. For example, you can either refer to a person as “interesting”—a description so vague that it can be taken as either a compliment or an insult—or you can depict that same person as having a “Mona Lisa smile” which immediately conjures up the mysterious yet knowing expression of that iconic work of art adding both depth and texture to your subject matter.

2. Metaphors infuse emotion into your ideas

At the core of who we are as humans are our emotions. An abundance of emotion can be both overwhelming and off-putting to your intended audience but messages that lack any emotional content are equally unappealing. Metaphors are a powerful way to infuse just the right amount of “why someone should care” into your writing. It’s one thing to say this subject is “important” and another entirely to describe that same subject by using the metaphor of the “red, flashing light and screaming siren on a fire truck.” The emotions that red lights, sirens and fire trucks evoke make your message decidedly more compelling.

3. Metaphors make your message more memorable

Any time you can associate a metaphor with a concept, you greatly improve the chances of that concept being remembered. In these days of shorter and shorter attention spans, anything you can do to grab your intended audience’s attention and make your message memorable will go a long way towards helping you rise above the noise of uninspired day to day communication.

4. Metaphors require us to think laterally about familiar concepts

When we encounter the same concepts over and over again in the course of our working lives, we develop a tendency—mostly for efficiency’s sake—to stop looking at them with fresh eyes or a beginner’s mind. This is natural and sometimes the best, most effective way to work. However, if the goal is to think differently about otherwise familiar ideas or products, then looking at them via metaphor is a great way to proceed. By searching for appropriate metaphors to describe your chosen topic, you will be forced to avoid familiar patterns of thinking which can impede your ability to innovate.


Find out more about Cliff’s book “The Reason For The Rhymes: Mastering The Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs.”

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Dick Karg
3 years ago

Life has a hidden grand design.
Once you learn how to look at what you find.