Metaphors and Similes in Business Writing


Let's remind ourselves what metaphors and similes are.


A metaphor associates two concepts by stating that one of them is the other. For example:

Her eyes were darting searchlights, scanning the room for her rival.

Here are two metaphors by famous people:

"Conscience is a man's compass."
(Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, 1853–1890)
"All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree."
(Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, 1879–1955)
If something is being described (NB not compared but described) in a way that it literally is not, then you're looking at a metaphor. So, "an icy stare" is a metaphor, but "an icy stair" isn't. "A stare like ice" isn't one either. That's a comparison. It's a simile.


A simile compares two things by saying one is like the other, or one is as the other.

Her eyes were like darting searchlights, scanning the room for her rival.

Here are two similes by famous people:

"A room without books is like a body without a soul."
(Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 BC–43 BC)
"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."
(Often attributed to English singer-songwriter Elvis Costello)

Metaphors and Similes in Business Writing

Below is an example from a business brochure which had just spent two paragraphs explaining the benefits of acquiring local knowledge before operating in a new environment:

"There are two quick ways to determine whether new waters are shark-infested: swim around to have a look or ask the locals."

This sentence is a metaphor for the idea explained at length in the brochure. Be aware that it's often the readers' job to link the metaphor or the simile to the original idea. That's how a high proportion of metaphors and similes appear in business writing.

Metaphors and similes can make your writing interesting to read, more memorable, more efficient, and more convincing. If you're brave enough to use one and you're sure it's appropriate, the advantages are notable.

"Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space."
(American author Orson Scott Card)

Why Are Metaphors and Similes Effective?

If you read the section on biases (especially anchoring), you will quickly notice that people do not like to make decisions in a vacuum. They like to make comparisons, and they like supporting evidence. As well as making your writing more interesting to read, metaphors and similes can provide both of those things. Imagine you wrote this simile:

"Plan A would be like throwing the pilot out of a stricken aircraft to make it lighter."
In reality, Plan A might be quite complex, and your simile might be somewhat simplistic, but your readers now know exactly where you stand on the issue. By offering a simple, memorable comparison, your readers will anchor to that simile when the time comes to consider the merits of plan A.

This is good stuff, so let's really get to the bottom of it. The idea of throwing the pilot out is madness. It's undeniable madness, and everyone agrees. If the simile is a good enough fit, lots of that agreement about the undeniable madness will bleed across onto Plan A. You are now not talking about Plan A directly, but about something far easier to explain. A good simile will "hijack" an idea. They're pretty powerful things.

But as well as possibly making you look a bit flippant, there is another danger with metaphors and similes. Your readers will not be impressed if you use what they perceive as an old one. Look at these similes:

"A printer without ink is as much use as:

(1) a chocolate teapot
(2) a handbrake on a submarine
(3) an ashtray on a motorbike."

Take your pick. Actually, don't. These similes are old. You will only be showcasing your intellectual limitations if you use clichés like these. At some point (probably back in the 1980s), these similes were considered novel, but they've now been overused. They're tired. Doubtless some people will think "A chocolate teapot? That's quite funny. I've never heard that before." Here's the point: If you didn't make it up yourself, ask around to test how fresh your simile (or metaphor) is.

"The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot."
(Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali, 1904-1989)
Before we think about how to write a new simile or a metaphor. It's worth reiterating that you don't have to use any creative-writing techniques in your business writing. They could be more damaging than beneficial, and metaphors and similes carry the most risk. But there are benefits to be had – especially if the technique suits your business environment. You'll instinctively know your boundaries.

Writing Metaphors and Similes

So, how do you write a simile or a metaphor? Well, sometimes they leap out at you. Other times, you have to really work at it. When inspiration doesn't strike, have a plan. Much like structuring a piece of business writing by writing paragraph titles, you can quickly consider your subject from a number of different angles using a simple analytical structure. I use a Trivial Pursuit question card.

The various question categories on a Trivial Pursuit question card can assist with thinking. For example, let's imagine you're trying to sell a powder that kills wasps. Let's call it "Wasp Killer". But now you want a slogan. Okay, get your Trivial Pursuit card out.

Geography: "Wasp Killer. Sends wasps to waspital."
(What's that got to do with Geography? I don't know. It just jumped into my head! It also suggests the powder is just going to injure the wasps. The card is just an aid to thinking. At this stage, all ideas are good. Just check out the section on Brainstorming to see what I'm talking about. Jot them down. They might inform something else later.)

Entertainment: "Wasp Killer. Makes wasps leave your house quicker than your 14-year-old son during a love scene on TV."
(Too long, I know. Probably not that original either. Still, jot it down.)

History: "Wasp Killer. Hiroshima for wasps is just one squirt away."
(Not acceptable, I know. But, jot it down.)

Arts & Literature: "Wasp Killer. For wasps, it's like three no's in X Factor."
(Nah, rubbish. Not sure how I got there under Art and Literature. Still, jot it down.)

Science and Nature: "Wasp Killer. A tsunami for wasps."
(Mmm? Nah)

Sports and Leisure: "Wasp Killer. Strike 3 for Wasps."
(Mmm? Maybe)

Now, there's a lot of rubbish amongst that lot. Stuff I'd never consider using. But, it's quite easy to see connections between the ideas. "Hiroshima" has links to "tsunami", and "three no's" has links to "Strike 3". Without "three no's", I might never have got to "Strike 3 for Wasps". So, write all ideas down.

I can't teach you how to be creative. You're almost certainly already more creative than me. But, by being systematic, I've managed to come up with "Wasp Killer: Strike 3 for Wasps." It's a bit US-centric, but I quite like it.

Be aware that, quite often, metaphors and similes aren't received as enthusiastically as they're delivered. Once you've written a metaphor or simile, test it.

"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
(German novelist Thomas Mann, 1875–1955)
I've just tested "Wasp Killer: Strike 3 for Wasps" on my wife. Apparently, it's not "a bit US-centric". It's too US-centric and not even that good. Oh, well. Back to the drawing board. Remember, proofreaders rarely do you a disservice. And, if a proofreader says your metaphor or simile is poor or inappropriate, believe them.

Bottom line: Using metaphors and similes is an efficient and memorable way of getting your message across. If it's appropriate, use one. But don't use too many in business correspondence. If you're going to use one, that's great. But don't use two.
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See Also

What is business writing?