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How To Use Metaphors To Inspire Creative Thinking

A metaphor compares an existing problem with another unrelated problem, object or situation. A useful tool in brainstorming, here’s how you might use metaphors for creative thinking and problem solving, by:

  1. Identifying similarities between the two disparate problems
  2. Examining the old problem in a new context
  3. Looking outside what we know, as well as our comfort zone, for potential solutions

Use the instructions below to incorporate metaphors into your creative thinking or brainstorms. If it’s helpful, you might start with .

How To Use Metaphors in Brainstorming

1.  State the problem facing you right now.

If working in a group, sometimes it’s helpful to give a short analysis or describe the problem more richly. At the same time, you might work with the brainstorm participants to purge, that is:  strip down and clarify the overall problem into a simple, single sentence.

Remember to state the problem as a problem. And, it should be descriptive and written in plain, conversational English.

As an example, for a new diabetes medication, the client said the problem was compliance. That’s not the problem. It is a single word that doesn’t adequately describe the problem. The real problem was Patients forget to take their medication.

2.  Paraphrase the problem statement by re-stating it as a metaphor.

The easiest way to do this is to complete this sentence: This problem is like (fill in the blank).

Here’s some metaphors we created to sell a product that was a failure the first time around, but had improved significantly with a “new and improved” version.

  • This problem is like a bad date who keeps calling you for a second chance.
  • This problem is like a getting your hand burnt a second time on the stove.
  • This problem is like your partner wanting to return to a holiday destination that you detested the first time you visited.
  • This problem is like hearing your sister is going to re-marry her no-good ex-husband.

Whether working independently or in a group, try to come up with at least 10 different metaphors to start.

3.  Select one metaphor that you find imaginative or provocative.


  • What unique perspective is revealed in this metaphor?
  • How might I use the suggestion uncovered in the metaphor to solve my unrelated problem?
  • What’s similar between the two problems (original and the metaphor)? Is there an insight?
  • What are the potential ways to use this new metaphor to solve my original problem?

4.  Transfer the solution from the metaphor to your specific problem or issue.

It’s important to remember that you often need to force the metaphor.  Sometimes the metaphor will be so obscure or illogical that your brain can’t make sense of it. That’s actually good. You need tension and confusion to disrupt your assumptions and former thinking. By trying to make sense of a nonsensical metaphor, your subconscious will help resolve the problem with a new idea. To help, team up with another person, or break your workshop participants into groups of 2 or 3.

An Example of Metaphorical Thinking in Brainstorming

A hair-care company wanted us to create new ways to encourage people to trial its products.


Women in the category already have their preferred shampoo and are not interested in trying something untested.

Examples of Metaphors

People don’t like to change. So, our problem is like …

  • Getting children to eat vegetables
  • Converting people to a new religion
  • Trying to give the cat a bath
  • Trying to make a dog to swallow a pill
  • Begging someone to love you

What are the potential ways to use this new metaphor to solve my original problem?

  • Find other ways to prepare the vegetables to disguise the fact they’re vegetables
  • Make the vegetables fun by creating a game, a song, or a story
  • Create demonstrations where women – similar to our audience – are trying the product successfully. Was there a Tupperware party or Avon Calling aspect to create for our hair-care products?
  • Show how others like vegetables, so much that they’ll eat yours if you’re not careful

How can transfer any of these solutions to our problem?

  • How do we re-package or disguise our hair-care products as something else?
  • How do we make our hair-care products fun?
  • How do we turn our hair-care products into a game?
  • How do we create songs/stories out of our hair-care products?
  • How do we show our new products are exclusive, hard-to-get, or something that everyone else has?

Have you tried using metaphors in your brainstorming? How has it worked? Do you have any example to share?  Please add your thoughts and comments below.

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How To Use Metaphors To Inspire Creative Thinking