15December 2023

Public Speaking Tips for Metaphors

If you walk into a classroom of 15-year-olds and tell them:
‘Today we are going to be working on Public Speaking.’
I am sure you can well imagine that the response is not very enthusiastic.
When I ran those classes, often it took a lot of effort to win the students around.
After giving them a few examples of situations where Public Speaking might be useful or even necessary for their future success, I might get a little bit of grudging acceptance – similar to understanding why we need to visit the dentist.

Then I might ask the group how many of them were intending or hoping to go on to Further Education or even University.  Most of the hands would go up.
‘You are probably going to have to do an interview’ I would say.
‘There will be someone like me in the room who is going to say something like -
“Tell me about yourself!”
So - what are you going to say?’
And slowly they would realise that Public Speaking is not necessarily about standing up on stage and delivering a speech, it is about speaking in public!
We would then talk about types of jobs where good speaking skills were important.
And if I still had a mountain of resistance (and there is a metaphor for you straight away), I would ask
‘Who would like to be better at getting their way when they go out with friends?’ or
‘Who would like to seem more confident when asking someone out on a date?’
And finally, some of them could see some point to the day!

So why would I be searching for metaphors or comparisons to use with a group of 25 fifteen-year-old boys somewhere in North London?
The Corbett and Connors book ‘Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student’ defines a metaphor as:
an implied comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common.

And there are broadly three types of metaphor

1. To compare something unknown to something known.
2. To compare something abstract to something concrete.
3. To compare something hard, unpleasant, or challenging to something less threatening or overwhelming.

I think we all understand there is something called ‘the fear of the unknown’ and one reason to resist Public Speaking is because it belongs to the new, the strange, and the uncomfortably unknown.

Therefore one reason I was searching for metaphors with these students was to gain benefit from at least two out of the three metaphor types above:
   1. To compare something unknown to something known.
and then if I could I would attempt:
   3. To compare something hard, unpleasant, or challenging to something less threatening or overwhelming.

The students regarded Public Speaking as ‘something unknown’ and ‘something hard’, so I thought if I could find a comparison to something known and something less hard and even maybe something that seemed more enjoyable to them,  I might be able to overcome some of their resistance.
Therefore I spent much of my time comparing Public Speaking to Sport – most of them liked sport or at least liked the idea of sport.
Therefore, collecting your thoughts under the pressure of having to speak in Public became compared to the feelings of an athlete standing on the line at the start of a 100-meter race:
- focussing on your goal and purpose or finishing line
- realising that nerves are part of peak performance
- concentrating on starting well out of the blocks
- keeping going even if you are not ‘winning’
- running through the finish line rather than stopping at the finishing line.
Often I would look for football metaphors because I knew that most of them liked football and probably admired people who were good at football.  Therefore comparing standing up to deliver a presentation to Messi taking a last-minute penalty proved to be more engaging than comparing their plight to a politician delivering a keynote speech.

10 tips for the use of metaphors in Public Speaking

  1. To compare something unknown to something known.

The best speakers paint pictures.  Rather than overwhelming their audience with words, words, words they look for an image that captures what they want to say and if what they are talking about is hard to describe or unknown they look for ways of simplifying the message.
‘How was your holiday in Singapore?’
‘It was like sitting in a sauna for a week!’
A politician might compare running the National Economy to a running grocer’s shop.
The economy is big and complicated but we probably understand the basic principles of running a shop:
balancing the books, not going too far into debt; offering something of value to the public in return for income.

  1. To compare something abstract to something concrete.

And this is what I did earlier with the comment about overcoming ‘a mountain of resistance'.
Resistance is an abstract concept, as is doubt, as is temptation.
We cannot ‘see’ resistance as we can see a house, or a dog, or a kettle.
Therefore to impress a memorable image on the listener we look for a more concrete image as a metaphor:
- ‘fighting your way over a mountain of resistance’
- ‘being crushed by a weight of doubt’
- ‘lured by the sweet song of temptation’
I can see a mountain, feel a weight, hear a song.
This means that at the end of the presentation, when I go home I still have the vivid accompanying image in my head so I can quickly find my way back to the message of the speech.
For the lure of ‘temptation,’ I might be left with an image of Ulysses tied to his ship’s mast listening to the Sirens, or depending on my age and taste I might have the music of Carmen, Heaven 17, New Order, or even Bing Crosby in my head.  And then as I find myself humming a tune on the way home, I remember why!

  1. To compare something hard, unpleasant, or challenging to something less threatening or overwhelming.

How do you make a journey of 1000 miles?...
…By taking one step at a time.
In the same way as data and information from my computer being sent to be stored remotely on an off-site server that I can always access from another device, is a bit much for me to understand, but to describe it as being stored in a ‘cloud’ helps me see what is happening.   I do know what a cloud looks like.

  1. Putting them all together

If I were to tell you that the moment of facing up to my deepest, darkest anxiety was like:
drawing back the curtains to shed light on my worries and opening the window to let light and fresh air flood into my mind,
we have a little bit of all 3 types of metaphor together: psychology is complex, but airing a room is simple; anxieties are abstract, drawing back curtains is concrete; facing up to issues is hard, but opening a window is not.

  1. Understanding the essence of your subject

It is only when you understand your subject on a deeper level that you can start to find metaphors that can achieve all of the above.
One metaphor that I regularly use, particularly in Storytelling, is ‘flying to France’ because the problem most of us have when speaking is that we know ‘what’ we want to talk about, but we are not clear enough about ‘why’.
The metaphor therefore is to show that even if we know the approximate journey, we still need to be clear on the final destination.
Consequently, we can either ‘overshoot the runway’, ‘arrive at the wrong airport’, or simply ‘run out of fuel and don’t arrive at all’.
Therefore a successful speech is like a journey – we need a clear destination. 
However, I can only find this metaphor once I have established the point I want to make.

  1. Understanding your audience

If I know I have a room full of 15-year-old boys who love football and athletics and hate Public Speaking, I know what form my metaphors will take.
If I am talking to a room full of Particle Physicists about human interaction and relationships, I dare say I could come up with a comparison somehow related to the Higgs boson particle.
When there was a low take-up on Covid vaccinations among younger people, I remember one health expert comparing the battle between Covid and the vaccination to the Death Star and the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars.
Immediately much of the audience could ‘see’ the point of the intervention and even quite liked the idea of the injection!

  1. Extended metaphors

Sometimes you can find extended metaphors or analogies that map across to a complete process.
These can be very useful in Public Speaking because they make the messages easier to remember both for the audience and the speaker.  If you compare the steps in a project to building a house, you can talk about starting with the foundations, building the walls, adding the roof, choosing fixtures and fittings and each step maps across to the steps of the project.
Now the listener has the whole project collected in one place.
Or on the other hand, rather than extending the metaphor….

  1. Keep it simple

Often you just want to create a clear succinct image that registers quickly with the audience.
The reliability and consistency of a colleague, who was there when she was needed and offered great support throughout the crisis, could be captured in ‘she was as steady as a rock’
He was strong, worked so hard, answered all the challenges, and was able to see the project through when others were falling away could be summed up as ‘he was a Colossus / a hero / a superstar’
However, some of these images might sound a bit tired and automatic, therefore, if possible….

  1. Try to avoid clichés

A cliché is usually a very good image.  It has just been used too often.
It does not take much to tweak a bit of life into a cliché.
You may simply choose not to ‘judge a book by its cover’ or you could suggest that often it takes a few pages before you can start to gain an understanding of someone.
I have always loved how the cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew avoided saying how the batsman’s 'eyes lit up' when he saw the change of bowler and instead took the accepted image one stage further by saying:
‘he had eyes like a fruit machine.’

  1. Keep them fresh and up-to-date

Daily, we are surrounded by images and stories that could be used to reinforce a message in our speeches.  A comparison can be drawn between a setback and a sporting disaster, or a political event.
Just make sure that the comparisons are appropriate and tasteful, as sometimes current affairs can also give you a clue about images that should be avoided as well as topical images you can use.


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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.