A metaphor compares an existing problem with another unrelated problem, object or situation. A useful tool in brainstorming, metaphors help creative thinking in three ways:
- By identifying similarities between the two disparate problems.
- By examining the old problem in a new context.
- By 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. Also, look here for an Introduction to Metaphors.
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. But, in doing so, you also ask the brainstorm participants to purge, by helping you strip down and clarify the problem into a simple, single sentence.
Also, remember to state the problem as a problem. As an example, for a new diabetes medication, the client said the problem was ‘compliance.’ That’s not a problem, that’s a single word that doesn’t adequately describe the problem. The real problem was this: Patients forget to take their medication. The problem should be descriptive and written in plain, conversational English.
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 ____________.
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.
Variations, Using Pictures
Consider the words of Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, who said: “While a picture might be worth a thousand words, a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.”
In other words, you don’t have to restrict yourself to words when creating metaphors. Some of the most interesting examples I’ve created used pictures, diagrams, cartoons, icons and crude stick drawings to make a problem comprehensible. You can make visual imagery even more powerful by combining it with words through storytelling.
After you repeat steps 1 and 2 above, continue with these instructions.
A. Gather many random images to create visual metaphors.
- I always have on-hand a big stack of random pictures I’ve pulled from old magazines, catalogues and newspapers. I’m also a big fan of postcards I pick up in coffee shops.
- To this add a trip to Google Images to find images, clip-art of photography. (Use up to ten different search terms to find a wide variety of images.)
- Try Pinterest, Tumblr or similar to find random images through searches or hash-tags.
- Several times I’ve sent people out with their smartphones to snap their own images, printing the pictures on the office printer when they returned.
B. Bring the visuals together.
- Arrange the images on a broad wall or organize them on a big table.
- Move the images around to find patterns or associations.
- Create mood boards or story boards. Form a collage or mosaic.
- The key is to look for similarities: how can a solution to an unrelated situation be adapted to solve your problem?
- If you really want ‘out-of-box’ thinking, look to wholly different industries or categories to ‘steal’ potential ideas.
- Again, you may need to use force fitting to create ideas. For additional help, look to Use Mental Stimuli for Brainstorming.
C. Stand back from the images and reflect on the original challenge or problem.
- How has the problem or challenge changed?
- What solutions are similar to my problem?
- What do these images remind me of?
- What new aspects or elements are revealed?
- Is there a new consistent theme or attribute from the visuals?
- What’s the learning? How can we apply it to our original problem or challenge?[/toggle]
An Example of Metaphorical Thinking in Brainstorming
Here’s some of the steps we took when a hair-care company wanted us to create new ways to encourage people to try its products.
- Women in our age demographic 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?