The Perfect Metaphor

This is part of The Writing Playground series, where we use TED Talks as a playground to learn how to make our writing (that’s right: writing!) more impactful. To make the most of this article, watch Tim Urban’s TED Talk before reading on.

Think of an abstract concept you have explored — something you understand well and would like to explain to others. There are many ways to do that, and finding the optimal way depends on your audience, their previous knowledge, and the platform you use. But one of the most effective ways that work with any audience in any context is using a metaphor. 

Metaphors are great for applying something we know about the world to a new concept we wish to explore or get familiar with. Many people know that intuitively and use metaphors extensively to make abstract and complex ideas more familiar and accessible. But not all metaphors are equal. Crafting an effective metaphor is often an art, and not all analogies will positively impact how your audience perceives and understands your text. 

Tim Urban’s TED Talk, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator, is one of the most viewed TED Talks ever, and for some very good reasons. First, it revolves around an experience many (if not most) people can relate to. As it happens, this experience is also a pain point, and many of us struggle with it and would like to understand its origins better. At the same time, these 14 minutes are lightweight and funny, and Tim does a great job delivering his personal experience and translating it into insights we can all use. 

But what makes Tim Urban’s talk so memorable and lovable is undoubtedly the metaphor that helped Tim capture the essence of procrastination — an abstract, psychological phenomenon — simply and insightfully. Tim didn’t try to go into the actual science of procrastination, nor did he try to capture every nuance and every scenario that might affect his life. Instead, he helped us understand why procrastination happens: How do procrastinators “think” when they make all these irrational “decisions?” And the metaphor he chose for that — the metaphor that became the core of his text — does this magic gracefully. 

The perfect metaphor has five attributes: 

  • It is familiar 
  • It uses a visual image 
  • It helps us gain instant insights
  • It spans the entire scope of the text 
  • And it is generative: it is evolving and playful 

The Metaphor Must Be Familiar

For a metaphor to work, it has to use a concept the audience is already familiar with. And the more familiar it is, the better. We all know monkeys. We understand how they behave. We have a mental model of a monkey, and when it is superimposed on the concept we are exploring, it sheds new light on it. When Tim Urban presents the monkey character (03:35 in the video), we instantly get it. We understand why he chose the monkey as a metaphor, and more importantly, we immediately understand something we haven’t before about procrastination (we’ll get back to this point soon). 

If Tim had used a concept we were less familiar with, it would have been much less impactful. If you have to explain the metaphor or the underlying concept you use, the analogy is ineffective. It might do more harm than good because it defocuses the text. Instead of concentrating on the topic, the audience might need to use some brain cycles to understand the metaphor. The text, in such cases, is less fluent and less coherent. 

For a metaphor to work, the concept you use must be familiar to the people you are talking with. 

The Metaphor Should Create a Mental Image 

When the metaphor creates a visual (as opposed to using yet another abstract concept), it is more powerful. The fact that we know what a monkey looks like, and we can visualize it taking over the steering wheel, is not only funny — it turns the metaphor into a living, memorable image. 

Tim Urban drew what goes on inside his head for us, literally. But for a metaphor to be visual, you don’t necessarily have to use photos and drawings. Using a familiar and non-abstract concept, like a monkey, is enough to create a mental image in the audience’s minds. Animating it and describing striking scenarios (like a monkey steering a boat) makes the metaphor even more impactful. 

Not all metaphors are visual; sometimes, they still work and are effective even when using an abstract concept as an analogy. However, a metaphor we can visualize is the preferred option if you can create one. 

The Metaphor Must Trigger Instant Insights 

Using a familiar, preferably tangible, concept one can visualize is essential to crafting the perfect metaphor. But if the audience can’t use it intuitively to understand something about the idea you aim to convey, the metaphor will have no impact. 

The funny monkey image is memorable, but it does much more than that. Anyone who ever procrastinated something instantly understands how this monkey is to blame. Tim Urban uses the following minutes to explain the dynamics of “The Instant Gratification Monkey” vs. “The Rationale Decision-Maker,” but they mostly add nuance and color; we already understand how procrastination works for the most part simply by being introduced with the metaphor. 

This does not mean the rest of the text has no value because, as we will see, the underlying idea (as well as the metaphor) continues to evolve. But we get the value of a new perspective on procrastination immediately when the metaphor is revealed. Nobody has to spell it out for us. 

When you use a metaphor your audience simply gets, you’ve nailed it.

The Metaphor Should Be Complete 

Switching or mixing metaphors is a disaster. Instead of clarity, it confuses the audience and requires an effort to make sense of it. Leaving a metaphor hanging and building the next floor of the thesis without mentioning it is also perplexing; it creates a sense of incompleteness and sometimes even undermines the initial impact the metaphor might have had. 

The best metaphors are those you can use throughout the scope of your text. 

Being complete does not mean the metaphor can be used to demonstrate or explain every bit and byte of the topic. It is, after all, just a tool and not the actual model you are trying to explain. A complete metaphor is one you can use as your text evolves and you move from one layer to the next. 

In his talk, Tim Urban had to explain the dissonance between procrastinating for weeks and months on the one hand and pulling yourself together just near the deadline. The monkey metaphor intuitively explains the first part, but fortunately, it works perfectly also for the second part. All Tim had to do was introduce a third character — the Panic Monster — that could make the monkey run away and hide. And so, the core metaphor is present throughout the text. 

The Best Metaphors are Generative: Evolving and Playful

Good metaphors create instant insights and help the audience “get” what you have in mind. The best metaphors enable the audience to continue playing with the idea even beyond the scope of the text. 

The monkey metaphor evolved throughout the 14-minute talk. Tim used it in several scenarios and then introduced the monster to show how the same monkey can demonstrate a different behavior. But this metaphor also made me think about other use cases: How does my monkey behave in other scenarios? And that, in turn, made the metaphor and the talk as a whole even more memorable and impactful. It resonated for a much longer time than these 14 minutes. 

A generative metaphor becomes part of the audience’s mental model. It helps the audience come up with their own ideas. Instead of being a static part of your text, it becomes a living idea in the minds of your audience. 

Great metaphors might seem like effortless creations, but they are often carefully designed and crafted. When you come up with an idea for a metaphor, explore it, put yourself in the place of your audience, and verify it is not just there for decoration; make sure it promotes the understanding of the idea you are trying to convey.

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