Find a Metaphor As Big As Your Idea
Metaphors are powerful because they take one concept and marry it to another one to help someone understand something. They’re a way to create an instantly-shared view of the world. To capture big ideas, you need something big enough to capture both the idea itself and all the subconcepts associated with it, a “meta-metaphor.”
A great example, if you haven’t already guessed, is the Red Thread. When we talk about how the Red Thread connects how you see with what you do, we can connect it back directly to the origin story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Not only that, but the subcomponents of the Red Thread are contained within it too, like the Problem of Perspective of people focusing on killing the Minotaur and not remembering that they need to get out of the maze.
How do we find our own meta-metaphor? One way is to find a metaphor that speaks to you and then match the ideas that you get from it to the concept you’re trying to represent. The other way is to start with the idea and look for the meta-metaphor. That takes time, but it gives shape to your idea and helps you understand it better.
– I get it that you have to take on faith the fact that you have a Red Thread, organizations have a Red Thread, all ideas have a Red Thread. Why do you have to take it on faith? Because you can’t see it. If there were an actual Red Thread, it would be a lot easier to find, would it not? And yet there’s something powerful in the metaphor of the Red Thread, in this thing that connects how we see the world with what we do in it.
There’s power in that metaphor because there’s power in metaphors. And sometimes, when you’re trying to figure out how to get other people to see your big idea, we have to find a metaphor that’s as big as your idea is. I call that the Meta Metaphor. And that’s what we’re talking about this week on Find the Red Thread. I’m your host, Tamsen Webster of www.tamsenwebster.com.
In his great TED Talk on the subject, James Geary says that we use metaphors six times every minute. They’re everywhere in conversation that we use. We say, “That’s going over the line,” or, “I’ll touch base with you on that,” or, “I’m putting a stake in the ground.” Each of those times, we are taking one concept and marrying it to another one to help somebody else understand. And that’s the reason metaphors are so prevalent, because they’re so powerful. They are a way to create an instantly shared view of the world. And if we’re talking about getting other people to see our ideas, to see the world the way we do so that they will do something different, that ability to create an instantly shared world view is incredibly important.
Now, it doesn’t mean that they’re always going to adopt that world view, but by being able to give someone a mentally physical concept, if that’s possible. It helps them understand and map over many, many other concepts into your idea very, very quickly. So when we say, “I’m putting a stake in the ground,” you get a sense of all the other things that that means. It means that I’m doing something sharp and decisive, and I’m putting it somewhere where it’s unlikely to move, right? And instead of saying that, “I’m about to make a sharp, decisive decision and I’m not going to move on it,” we can just say, “I’m putting a stake in the ground.”
Now, for tiny concepts, we obviously use this all the time, but we can also use metaphors to capture big concepts, concepts big enough for even the sub-concepts of our idea to fit into. The best example, off the top of my head, is of course the one that I use, and that’s the Red Thread. The Red Thread is very simple in its concept. It’s a piece of red thread, but the origin story that it comes from has all the components that I’m looking for to explain all the things that the Red Thread does.
So when I describe the Red Thread as a way to connect how you see with what you do, I’m able to directly connect it back to the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, in the fact that he needed a way to see where he was, see how he was moving through the maze in order to do the thing that he needed to do. But that origin story also has components for sub-concepts within the Red Thread method.
For instance, the Problem Statement, that problem of perspective where we’re trying to find the thing that people are focusing on to the exclusion of something else. Well, the fact that people kept focusing on killing the Minotaur and forgetting that they needed to get out of the maze, is one of those sub-concepts that that “Meta-Metaphor” can put into place. So how can you find a Meta-Metaphor?
Well, there’s two ways, really. One is to find metaphors that speak to you and then match the ideas that match that to it. It’s in fact what happened with the Red Thread. I knew about the idea and about the origin story, and then I also had my method for helping people clarify ideas, and over dinner one night with a group of friends, I was thinking, you know I really should name this process. And then I told them about this idea, this metaphor that I loved and they’re like, “Why don’t you call it that?” And then the Red Thread was born.
The other way, of course, is to start with the idea and then go looking for the idea that the metaphor that matches it. Now that had become instantaneously with the Red Thread, but really I already knew about the Red Thread. A lot of times when I’m working with clients, this is what we’re doing. They’re coming in with ideas and we’re trying to find ways to encapsulate that metaphor in something that makes it make even more sense to other people.
So we’ve used things like the properties of sound as a Meta-Metaphor. We’ve used the ocean as a Meta-Metaphor where there’s different pieces of eco-systems and waves, all these different elements of the ocean also mapped back to their idea. We’ve also used, similar to the Red Thread, stories that people may or may not know.
I have one client that used Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition as a way to include all the different concepts of their big idea. But the power of that Meta-Metaphor, even if you don’t ever use it with an audience, is that it helps you understand your idea better because it gives shape to the idea, it allows you to give dimension physically in your mind to this amorphous, ephemeral thing. But, remember that’s where the power comes in.
So, when you’re trying to figure out how do I get other people to really see my big idea, think of the fact and whether or not there’s something else that they already see or already think about that matches it perfectly. I’ll bet you’ll find something, because there’s usually a perfect Meta-Metaphor out there. I’m Tamsen Webster of www.tamsenwebster.com. Thanks for watching and listening to this episode of Find the Red Thread. If you need help finding your Meta-Metaphors or even just your Red Thread, then reach out to me at www.tamsenwebster.com/contact. I’d love to hear more about what you’re working on.