How does a metaphor help a story?

How does a metaphor help a story?

Stories are impacting, inspiring, warming, helpful or blood boiling. Our subconscious mind takes stories very personally, which is why you’ll find people clutching tissues in a sad or romantic movie, running to their car in panic following a horror movie, and feeling pumped and ready for action after watching Batman. On a deep subconscious level, your brain actually thinks it’s all happening to you. When told effectively stories stimulate action and movement in our lives.

Stories are pretty much part of everything we do. Just like most Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) techniques, we already use stories on a subconscious level in strengthening our brains learning, communication and problem-solving patterns. NLP is simply the study and effective engagement of the part of our brain that is responsible for our internal and external communication. That communication happens on multiple levels, like verbal language, actions, body language, the feelings and emotions that pulse through our system, tone of voice and our personal, unique awareness and response systems.

This is why I find NLP so exciting. There is so much to it and, essentially, you are just learning what you already do as a natural process and then doing it really well. Even as a novice, knowing your NLP and using NLP tools can assist you in reaching your goals, overcoming limiting decisions or emotions and help you to make incredible connections with other people. That’s pretty awesome, right?

One of the simplest NLP techniques I teach is how to write a metaphor. It doesn’t take any new knowledge, just tell a story in the right way with the right elements. You already have all the skills you need for this one. Even if we aren’t aware of it, stories are told to us constantly. We listen to them in media, and we deliver them in conversations with family, friends, work colleagues. They are the entire point of movies, fiction books, magazines, how-to books, comics, websites and advertising.

As well as constant exposure to the external stories there are also multiple stories going on in your subconscious as well. Stories that tell you how much you are worth, what you are good at, who your family is. Sometimes a story gets played over so often, it becomes our only identity, and when that happens, you can lose sight of the infinite possibilities available to you. Stories told the wrong way can cause tunnel vision.

When you are stuck in your story you are stuck in life. Getting out of that story is a multi-layered approach, you didn’t get yourself in there in one day, so give yourself some time to step out and make new discoveries about yourself and your environment layer by layer, sort of like peeling back the layers of an onion.

As an NLP practitioner, it’s not a case of having one magic tool that fixes any conflict. It’s about having a huge toolkit and using as many as needed to get to the core of an issue as gradually as needed.

How does a metaphor help a story?

The very start of this getting unstuck process, the work on the first layer to release the grip on a really well-guarded story is a metaphor. This is the part where we can inspire someone (or be inspired) to accept the possibility that change is possible. Unless a person realises the potential for change and has a desire for things to be different, no NLP tool will work, no matter how expert you are at it. So that makes practising metaphors seriously essential and one of the most important things you can do as an NLP practitioner, or even as a friend to get a person starting to see that actually, there might just be some light at the end of that tunnel.

When told well, a metaphor sets a person off on an incredible new adventure.

I teach this in my Excellence Now course and my Influence Now course because it’s so valuable. As a presenter, I love the effect of using metaphors on stage, the whole rooms goes incredibly still and super quiet, it’s like they are collectively holding their breath, waiting for the ending. It’s brilliant, the Troublemaker in me gets excited about the breakthroughs we’re going to achieve. Anyway, using metaphors is really simple, although it will take some practice to get used to. Lots of my students get overwhelmed on this one because telling a story should be easy right? It is, the only trap can be that we have been telling stories with a negative effect for so long, it feels a bit weird to actively engage in a metaphor with a positive impact.

If you are new to NLP, you can use the metaphor technique in any interactions you have with people of any age, just follow these simple steps.

General metaphors work well too, to get a really big impact, you can tailor a story to your listener. Here’s how:

How to Create the Perfect Metaphor

Know the problem.

This is easy if someone has been telling you the same story over and over again for the past, however long, but it’s good to get them to really state what the heart of the conflict is.

Let’s say a work colleague got passed up for a promotion last month and is really having a hard time moving past it. You would like to motivate and inspire them to seize a new opportunity but they are in shut-down mode.

So what’s really the problem?

You find out they feel rejected and unappreciated.

Now get them talking (very briefly) about some things they love. It could be a colour, a piece of art, a particular season, a hobby, an activity they enjoy doing, a sound they like to hear. See if you can get three different things they like.

(e.g. A sunrise. Sailing. Violin music)

Think of skills or attributes the person might need to get over their problem, like patience, a new angle, realising the goal is bigger or different to the original.

Now all you need is an active, positive solution. Something opposite to the problem. (e.g. they find acceptance and appreciation)

It’s time to brainstorm your metaphor

Hint: Make it as abstract as possible. The subconscious mind loves abstractions, they are easy and flexible and your mind can quickly make it personal and relatable and get a really good hold on the content. We do this naturally all the time, especially in ancient stories, the Aboriginal dream time, for example, uses very beautiful abstract stories about the sun and sky and rivers that are relatable and popular to any culture and remain timeless.

When you first start creating metaphors and using them as an NLP technique you probably want to have 10 minutes or so to yourself to write out your new positive story. As you get good at them though you can unravel a metaphor on the spot, without even thinking about it!

To start with, your metaphor character has the same conflict as your listener. Time and time again they are inflicted by their troubles. As you introduce things that the person likes in the story the characters troubles start to shift, through whatever skills or attributes you would like the listener to be aware of within themselves.

You do not need to actually give the solution away, actually, it’s better if the listener is given room to make their own ending, so leave this open but obvious. Just be sure it is positive and empowering when you end.

Keep it short, there is no need for War and Peace, three to five minutes should be all you need.

Even though it might be tempting to write it out word for word, try just to sketch an outline and use it as a guide. A metaphor will be better received if it is a casual conversation. Having your head buried in your reading will prevent connection. Use eye contact, body language and expression to bring your story to life and embrace your listener in your words. (we’ll show you how to do all that in Excellence Now and Influence Now).

Now it’s time to deliver your metaphor.

Start by drawing a strong correlation between their problem and your story.

“Remember how you were talking earlier about a problem you were having with rejection and feeling unappreciated? It actually reminds me of a story…”

Make eye contact, use different pitch levels, state the problem and the attempts and failures to overcome them, then…look, light at the end of the tunnel, you follow the light little by little and…

Use the example I’ve given to write your own inspirational metaphor for this pretend work colleague.

Your ultimate aim is tears, goosebumps, or fist pumps.

Remember, what the listener does (or doesn’t do) with the information is actually none of your business. They don’t need to apply for the job you want them to or come to work the next day beaming. Let the information sit, like a little seed planted in the deepest part of the brain and just know it will bloom when the timing is right.


If you would like to learn how to deliver a world-class metaphor and have a powerful tool in your NLP toolkit, join us at our next Excellence Now course and discover the wonderful world of metaphors.

Matt Catling

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