Metaphors and Persuasion

By Van Patten, Jonathan K. | South Dakota Law Review, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview
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Metaphors and Persuasion


Van Patten, Jonathan K., South Dakota Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Persuasion is not a completely rational process. Some would say that, in many instances, it is mostly non-rational. (1) This is why stories are so important in the process of persuasion. (2) Stories connect with the subconscious mind in ways that a strictly rational argument can never touch. (3) Stories speak directly to the listener's deeply embedded values; they resonate with and shape the listener's moral infrastructure. (4) Stories help to make sense of things in a way that invites the listener to affirm the truth of the story and its application to present circumstances. (5) In addition to stories, there is another, often more common and efficient way to reach the same level where decisions are made--metaphors. Metaphors are compact stories.

A good story usually takes some time to set up. The storyteller sets the scene, introduces the characters, directs the action from problem to resolution, and may comment on the meaning of the story. Metaphors (6) can make a point in a single phrase or sentence. In its compact version, it may take the listener by surprise. The point works swiftly, before the listener has a chance to set up defenses. An effective metaphor's humor and insight has a way of getting past the normal resistance of a listener. Brevity, humor, creativity, and insight provide great camouflage for the true nature of metaphor, which is argument. A skillfully delivered metaphor does not feel like argument. It is like the soft-sell. It reaches down to the subconscious without seeming to lecture or demand.

In his book, The Culture Code, Clotaire Rapaille discusses the process of tapping into the subconscious mind by focusing on cultural imprints or meanings associated with products or relationships. (7) These meanings are not found in what people say, at least not initially. (8) They are found through exploring impressions, expressed after a substantial time spent in digging through memories stretching back to early childhood. (9) In other words, it takes time to break through the rational level to reach the emotional level to discover what people really value. From this process, Rapaille formulates "culture codes" that provide access to these fundamental imprints. (10) In somewhat the same way, metaphors provide access to these imprints, meanings, and values.

Metaphors are an important part of the language of popular discourse. They are used in almost every context. Whether in politics 4(e.g., Inaugural Addresses (11)), advertisements, (12) preaching, (13) or sports talk, (14) metaphors are commonly used to express ideas in terms of common values. Metaphors are effective because they speak to a common level of understanding. They utilize material from everyday life and invite the listener to participate in a non-threatening manner, i.e., internally and privately. Compare, for example, the use of metaphor, which invites silent agreement in the mind of the listener, with the more public and demonstrative use of: "How many of you would agree with the statement that there are too many lawsuits these days? Raise your hands, please." The latter part, a staple of voir dire, seems, to this reserved Dutch person, as overly intrusive or invasive, thereby generating discomfort and possible resistance, whereas the former allows for agreement without bullying or group pressure. (15)

Metaphors can also take the extended form of a story, such as a parable or allegory. Because there is a greater length of time required to complete the story, it is important to start strong in order to bring the listener in. The use of humor, a point of interest, or a story within a story may serve this purpose. The storyteller should not abuse the position as speaker and assume agreement, even when "preaching to the choir." (16) Members of a "captive audience" can generate resistance to the speaker's message on that fact alone. Extended metaphors can be powerful because they build along the way as each reference point, often a metaphor itself, solicits agreement that will lead to the ultimate conclusion.

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