Aristotle wrote: “[The] greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor….[it is] a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilarity.”

The power of stories

Stories have been used to teach throughout history. In fact it’s been discovered that stories pre-date the written histories in the form of cave paintings. Since then many stories have been used to teach others, whether that teaching be history, philosophy, religion or anything else. Every known culture in the World have used stories to pass on knowledge, entertain, and teach important lessons.

Reynolds Price wrote: “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.”

Now I know that you may be able to remember stories from your childhood that have special meaning to you. For instance I remember being in Sunday school and hearing the story of the loaves and the fishes, or my mum reading me the story of Goldilocks and the 3 bears.

Wikipedia describes a metaphor as a figure of speech that identifies something as being the same as some unrelated thing for rhetorical effect, thus highlighting the similarities between the two. So a story metaphor would be a story that has a meaning other than the story itself.

How they work

We all have defences that protect us from the outside world. Stories have become such an intrinsic way to pass on knowledge that they bypass our usual defences when it comes to learning lessons. When we tell a story it is seen as a gentle, non-direct, approach to another person. It gets around the guards each of us set around our sub-conscious and unconscious mind. Therefore by using metaphors we can easily bypass the guardians and get to the unconscious mind, allowing the true meaning to be determined by the listeners own mind. This is an incredibly powerful technique as the true learning is being told to the listener by the listener and has far more impact on their core beliefs than by stating the learnings directly. For example, if I were to say to someone “You can change the way you do x”, there may be a change in that person’s core beliefs, but it is less likely than a metaphor. Dr Milton Erickson was a master of communicating to clients by using metaphors.

An example is given in the first chapter of David Gordon’s book Phoenix:

I was returning from high school one day and a runaway horse with a bridle on sped past a group of us into a farmer’s yard looking for a drink of water. The horse was perspiring heavily. And the farmer didn’t recognize it so we cornered it. I hopped on the horse’s back. Since it had a bridle on, I took hold of the tick rein and said, “Giddy-up.” Headed for the highway, I knew the horse would turn in the right direction. I didn’t know what the right direction was. And the horse trotted and galloped along. Now and then he would forget he was on the highway and start into a field. So I would pull on him a bit and call his attention to the fact the highway was where he was supposed to be. And finally, about four miles from where I had boarded him, he turned into a farm yard and the farmer said, “So that’s how that critter came back. Where did you find him?” I said, “About four miles from here.” “How did you know you should come here?” I said, “I didn’t know. The horse knew. All I did was keep his attention on the road.”

What does that metaphor mean to you? That’s the lesson you will learn at a very core level.