The Good & Bad of (business) Metaphors

Jun 09

So, Judging By My Emails…

I stirred up a quiet little hornets-nest-of-doubt in more than a few people last week. The culprits? This post about metaphors-gone-amok, and this other one, about murdering-your-darlings.

I apparently left some readers wondering if I meant their metaphors, mascots and witty wordplay were overdone.

Oops.  Sorry about that!  Let’s get this cleared up with a Q&A session, ok?

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What’s A (Business) Metaphor?

It’s just a metaphor that’s used in your business… some sort of  symbolic representation or illustration that helps you or your customers better relate to what you’re doing.

I learned about the art of metaphoring from Havi Brooks’s blog, where she’s developed it into an awesome system. She in turn credits Suzette Haden Elgin for it.  But wherever it originated, it’s pure fantabulous for getting past the stuck of formal business terms and structures.

It’s also sometimes an awesome way to make your website or business stand out from the crowd, becoming what Hugh MacLeod calls Social Objects

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Got Some Good Metaphor Examples?

Sure! There’s Goddess Leonie, whose business is built around the concept of women as divine creative goddesses.  It works beautifully for her, and is woven through everything she does.

Havi’s best-known metaphor is the Pirate Ship used for her internal business structure, but if you search her site for the phrase “metaphor mouse” you’ll find about a gazillion more examples of her metaphoring process.

A little closer to home, our own creative coach Alexia Petrakos is using the metaphor of an old fashioned exploratory expeditions to guide her creative clients, with a few steam-punk inspired inventions tossed into the trunk, for fun.

And our favorite finance-fear tamer, Nicole Fende has stepped outside of the usual financial imagry to created a pair of metaphor-inspired mascots to bring a touch of originality and humor to an often intimidating part of doing business.

And of course, the entire Circus Serene site and its purpose is built around a three-ring circus metaphor for the crazy, sparkling, way-too-much-going-on-to-see-it-all that is life, career and creativity.

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You Like Metaphors, Huh?

Yepp, I’m a big fan.

I use them almost daily to understand and explain complicated concepts, to get myself and clients out of mental ruts, to find new approaches and ideas. They make me think, laugh, and relate to things in new ways.

(I’m also a fan of story-telling,  personifications, anthropomorphic mascots, and other literary vanities.  Pretty much everything in this post  applies to those pet darlings, too.)

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So Metaphors For Everyone, Right? Every Biz Needs One!

Actually? No.

Most of the stand-out awesome, helpful, successful blogs, businesses and entrepreneurial thingy ma-jigs out there don’t use metaphors in any significant or visible way.

So no, every business doesn’t need one. In fact, it would totally suck if everyone used them, because gratuitous metaphor-ing feels gimmicky – sometimes, the wit-just-doesn’t-fit!

Useful metaphors and other darlings serve a purpose. That purpose may be internal (helping you to relate better to your business) or external (helping to illustrate aspects of your business for your customers or clients), but if the only purpose of a metaphor is to serve as window dressing, or show off your wit and creativity? It’s probably time to consider if it’s weakening your message, rather than strengthening it.

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Is There Some Sort Of Test For Bad Metaphors And Darlings?

I’d love to give you a really clear answer here, like telling you to just steer clear of anything too clever, punny or out-there, but I don’t believe in that.  What do I believe?

Creative risks are worth taking.
Failure is worth risking.

And the best-ideas-EVER always teeter on that creative edge between mahvelous and gawd-awful.

Honestly, you won’t know if it works until you try it.

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No, Really – How Do You Know If It’s Working?

Ask one simple question: Is it working?

Look at your metaphor (or mascot, or story, or whatever form your darling takes).

Is it working for you? Is it keeping your approach to your business or topic fresh or exciting? Is it helping you to relate to your clients, customers, or business?  Does it help lead you where you want it to go? Does it create the right mindset for you to successfully approach this element of your work?

Are your Right People responding to your metaphor? Are they attracted to it, or put off by it? Does it help them better understand themselves? Better understand you and your offerings? Better understand your message? Offer a new perspective? Does it  lead them where you want them to go?

Does the metaphor advance your message? Does it help make your point? Or is it just window-dressing?

You probably already know the answer to this, instinctively.

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So If It’s Working For Me, It’s Good?

Hey, working is working! If it helps you approach your work in a positive way, that’s definitely good.

Another way to think about it is in terms of internal and external metaphors.

Internal metaphors are used within the business, as part of the internal structure and organization. They affect the internal approach and attitude of the people involved in the business.

External metaphors are used as part of the content or marketing. They affect the approach and attitude of the reader, client, or consumer.

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I’m Not Sure I Get That…

Ok, let’s look at a few of the examples from earlier. (I haven’t discussed these metaphors with their creators, so they might disagree with my assessment, but they work as examples!)

Havi Brook’s Pirate Ship metaphor is mostly internal. She uses it metaphor to organize her own thoughts about her business, and to keep her employees, partners and consultants in the same playful frame of mind. It doesn’t really add much to our understanding of what she does, and when she came up with the metaphor, she didn’t redesign her blog or products to be all piratey, and the only reason most of us know about it is because she writes so much about her process.

On the other hand, Nicole Fende’s  Fluffy the Finance Feline & Number Muncher Nemesis are mostly external metaphors; Nicole’s not afraid of numbers, so she doesn’t need an amusing, light hearted way of approaching them – her clients do.  (there’s probably an internal aspect to it, as well – Fluffy reminds Nicole to be silly and light hearted)

Goddess Leonie’s Divine Femine and Alexia’s Creative Explorer metaphors are both internal and external…  Their metaphors affect their approach to their Right People, and help their Right People find the right frame of mind, too.

And my own Circus? It started as a way to structure my business internally, then evolved into an external but surface metaphor.  It’s grown from there – and as long as people relate to it, and aren’t put off by it, I’ll probably keep using it.

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Probably? Does That Mean You Might *Not* Keep Using  Your Circus Metaphor? Why?

It might stop working.

Sometimes metaphors get old. Sometimes businesses evolve and outgrow them.  Sometimes customers evolve and out grow them.  Sometimes the message changes, and the metaphor no longer fits.

So it’s worth re-evaluating things periodically.

In fact? Sometimes, a big part of my personal stucked-ness comes from trying to cling to metaphors or other creative darlings that I’ve outgrown.

It’s hard to let go of something I’m so invested in, but it’s often necessary for further growth.

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What If I Don’t Want To Let Go Of My Metaphor?

Hey, nothing says you have to let go of it, even if it’s not working.

Maybe all it needs is a slight tweak: an element added or removed, a bit more explanation, a new look or feel to it.

Play with it.

See how your Right People react to it.
See what they respond to.
See what works.

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Can You Summarize All This?


Business metaphors can be totally fanflourishtabulous when done right.  They can help you relate to your business in a fresh way. They can help your Right People relate to you, your message and your offerings in a fresh way.  They can advance your message, adding perspective and insight.

But when they don’t work, they feel gimmicky, confusing, and like empty window-dressing. They can make it seem like you’re trying too hard, and there’s a good chance that you are.

How to know if you’re trying too hard? How do you know if a metaphor is working?  If you are responding to it, it’s working. If your Right People are responding to it, it’s working.  If they’re taking action, talking about it, using the metaphor in their own lives, it’s working.  If it’s helping them to understand your message and relate to your offerings, it’s working.

If it’s not working, change it. Consider limiting it to  internal use. Or consider it as a purely external metaphor.  Play with it. Change it. Dump it. Experiment.  Take risks, accept the results, and adapt.

It’s a process.

And you totally don’t need a metaphor. Really. You don’t.

Oh, you’ve got one last question? Sure, ask away!

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Why Did You Write This Now?
Did You See A Truly Awful Metaphor? Is it Mine?

No not at all! There are some metaphors out there I don’t relate to, but that doesn’t mean they’re awful.  In fact, most of them make me giggle, even if I’m not their “right people.”

But I’m about to let a small offering loose on you, and it involves mascots, menageries and metaphors. Thinking about it, I realized that in my own metaphor madness, I could lead some readers to think they needed a metaphor or mascot, so this is sort of my way of heading off that trouble in advance.

It’s ok to have a metaphor or theme for your business.
It’s ok not to have a metaphor or theme for your business.

What matters is that whatever you do? It works, for you, for your business, and for your people.

Now, I’m off to work up that long promised offering.  Because it’s going to be some *serious* fun!

P.S. If I somehow missed answering your personal question, please leave it in the comments, and I’ll add it into this monstrosity of a post!


  1. You wrote:
    “And the best-ideas-EVER always teeter on that creative edge between mahvelous and gawd-awful.”

    When I read that, I saw Emmit walking the tightrope! He was pretty darn good at it, too! 🙂

    I think your explanation about internal and external metaphors is particularly useful. Some metaphors are motivational and not everyone needs to know. Sometimes it’s tough to keep something that inspires you a secret, though. I’m grappling with that right now with my own business model metaphor.

    I also think that most metaphors need to happen naturally. If you spend a lot of time trying to create a metaphor, it’s probably contrived and will come across as a gimmick.

  2. Christy Bower said everything I was thinking (but said it clearer than what was going on in my mind), so I’m just going to say: Ditto what Christy said!!

  3. Ditto to both of you, Karen & Christy!

    And I definitely agree about Emmit walking the tightrope line between awesome and awful. He could go wrong so easily, but I think that’s part of what makes it funny. 🙂

  4. Tori this post was really needed and answered so many questions! Some I didn’t even know I had, such as why Fluffy is helpful to me. You are spot on in saying he reminds me to keep things fun and the math geekery contained.

    You also helped me understand how others fit and they all really work. If Emmit does fall I’m guessing a big group of clowns will be below him with a net.

    Finally I’m glad I can keep Fluffy and Number Muncher, the pound told me they don’t take figments 🙂