Speaking In Metaphors

If you become wise enough, well-read enough, or write enough, I believe metaphors transmute your default way of communicating. Three excellent examples passed through recent readings which are too good not to share.

FDR’s Explanation For the Lend Lease Program

In late 1941, Winston Churchill sent Roosevelt a letter informing him Great Britain would be out of money next year and therefore unable to pay for war supplies. The current law prevented the U.S. to trade arms or supplies for anything other than cash. FDR went in full campaign mode and delivered a metaphor that worked in shifting public perception and it goes as follows:

“Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire…I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.”… I don’t want $15–I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. “


The metaphor worked. The Lend-Lease bill enhanced presidential powers to “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend or otherwise dispose of” items to other countries.

Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories

I thought I knew what good writing was and then I read Flannery O’Connor. How she weaves dialogue, imagery, metaphors (similes), setting, and then stamps a resounding message through it all — I might as well be examining a rare artifact.

In her short story Everything That Rises Must Converge, the main character, Julian escorts his mother to the YMCA on evenings where she attends classes to remedy her high blood pressure. On the bus she starts her regular spiel on race and O’Connory zooms back out to the 3rd person narration with the following line:

“She rolled onto it every few days like a train on an open track. He knew every stop, every junction, every swamp, along the way, and knew the exact point at which her conclusion would roll majestically into the station.”

Flannery O’Connor

Intertwining an argument with a metaphor (simile) around a predictable, boring, and unimaginative process like a train route is beyond clever.

Warren Buffett On a Failing Enterprise

Over this past weekend, Berkshire Hathaway had their annual meeting where Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger share their learnings and answer questions. When asked about Haven, the recently dissolved joint venture between JP Morgan Chase, Berkshire Hathaway, and Amazon which set out to fix healthcare costs, he explained the following:

“We learned a lot about the difficulty of changing around an industry that’s 17 percent of GDP,” Mr. Buffett said during the May 1 annual shareholders meeting in a discussion with business partner Charlie Munger. “We were fighting a tapeworm in the American economy, and the tapeworm won.”

Warren Buffett

There were a thousand ways to answer that question. Multifarious options include entire talk tracks on the market, execution, team, timing…the list goes on. However Buffett sums it up precisely with a simple metaphor: a tapeworm.

Metaphors communicate the overall idea with precision and brevity. Yet it takes quality experience, knowledge, and skill to pull them off well.

(h/t mudpeach)

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