Speaking without metaphors is like running a marathon barefoot. Yes, you can finish the race, but not without a certain amount of pain. Nowhere is the potential for speaking pain greater than in the opening of a talk, when you have only a few seconds to win or lose your audience's attention. Metaphors are the solution to that problem.
Here is an example of how one speaker used a metaphor in his opening remarks to deal painlessly with a very painful topic for his audience. After he acknowledged the group, he began: "Flying in for this meeting, I sat next to a woman with a very unusual ring on the middle finger of her left hand. When I commented on it, she said it was her wedding ring. I asked, "Why do you have it on the wrong finger?" Replied the woman, 'I married the wrong guy.'"
After the laughter died down, the speaker then metaphorically linked the story to his point. "Given the disappointing results we have all been experiencing in the market lately, it is fair to ask, 'Are we married to the wrong guy - the wrong strategy? I believe so." Having eased his group into his topic and totally captured them with his off-beat opening, he then went on to present his arguments and alternative marketing strategy ideas.
Metaphors surprise your audience because by definition, a metaphor is something other than what is expected. It's a stand-in for the obvious. I use the term "metaphors" to include analogies and similes as well. The statements "John is a pig" (metaphor), "John eats like a pig" (simile), or 'John is a pig; he has all the etiquette of a pig at a trough" (analogy) all engage much more than the statement, "John is messy." Metaphor, simile or analogy, they all conjure images and emotions and, as if by magic, draw us into a speaker's narrative.
Note: Other common blind-spots are fear, indifference, skepticism, hostility, confusion or various pre-conceived notions.
Note: There is always a point of common ground you can find with an audience, even when you have little advance information. The worlds of sports, current events, family, travel, business, entertainment, history, nature, childhood, school and celebrities, to name a few, are common to most people and rich in metaphoric possibilities.
Note: You will likely reject several metaphors before you hit on just the right one for any group. Be sensitive to generational, cultural and value differences. Frank Sinatra references may go over the heads of Eminem fans. Analogies about the Chicago Bulls may fall flat or arouse animosity if used in Los Angeles or New York or anywhere outside the U.S.
Note: Make sure you can relate the story back to your topic: An unrelated joke may work for Jay Leno, but as openers for speeches, they usually backfire, making your audience more, not less, uncomfortable.
Some openings may be quite short - a question, a startling image, a funny reference. Stories or metaphors that build an image can take longer. But for the opening to work, the metaphor must not ramble; it must offer only enough detail to set up your linking statement.
Imagine you are promoting investment in public education to a group of executives whose children attend private school. They're not likely to identify with the problem of under-funded public schools. Competition, however, is something this group can relate to. Here's how one speaker opened her plea, standing in front of a huge number "14" projected on the wall behind her:
"Good morning, everyone. Let me ask you a question. How would you feel if the U.S. were No. 14 in the world in Olympic hockey?" She pointed to the wall. "How would you feel if your favorite baseball team was No. -14 in its league? How would you feel if you were No. 14 on a standby list to get on a flight? Not too happy, I suspect."
"Yet 14 is where the U.S. ranks in the world in math among 13-year-olds. That is behind Slovenia, Korea, Hungary and France. If we want to stay competitive in the global market, we clearly cannot have our workforce finishing 14th in math. We can remedy this situation, but we're going to need your help."
Metaphors can make even highly technical material easy for the lay-man to grasp, provided you keep the metaphor itself simple. Imagine that your topic was the Automated Payment Transaction tax (the brain-child of Edgar L. Feige, a retired economist from the University of Wisconsin). Look at how this opening metaphor pulls people into a potentially deadly topic:
"Think of your economic life as a highway. It's decently paved. But thanks to the tax system, there are toll booths all over, with rates so high you need someone along to help you find ways to pay them or plain get around them.
Now imagine that a sort of tax-system E-ZPASS comes along, - enabling you to whiz through the booths without digging in your pockets or consulting a guide. Suddenly, the highways are opened up and you're no longer wasting time or energy.
The Automated Tax System is the E-ZPASS solution to our complicated tax system..."
The best talks dazzle with metaphors and reflect Aristotle's observation that to be master of metaphor is everything. Remember:
Have a marathon (speech) coming up? Be sure you've got your sneakers on (a strong opening metaphor), to set a racing record with your audience (to instantly win their interest - and attention).