STUDY: A Figure of Speech Can Actually Force You to Figure

I had a mentor of mine in writing tell me “Figures of speech are the chef’s salt and pepper — use the liberally, precisely and without effing the recipe up.

I see what he did there. That was a metaphor. And scattered in the Lazy Susan in my verbal kitchen, the metaphor is one the key tools I use. There are others like anaphora, chiasmus and the snarky litote, but the metaphor is garlic, ginger or whatever the hell parsley helps.

Having this affinity, as most copywriters should, when I read this study in Scientific American by way of Salon, I was flummoxed because I’ve always wondered about the power of writing. And this study proves there is a physical reaction to it.

According to the study published in PLOS ONE, reading different metaphors — such as “crime is a virus” and “crime is a beast”— affected participants’ reasoning when choosing solutions to a city’s crime problem. Think about it: By choosing your words carefully, you can affect decision.

Whelp, of course. If that wasn’t the case, why would attorneys work so hard for their closing arguments. If all they did was belch facts, the jury would go to sleep. However, using figures of speech make people pay attention. Listen to one of the conductors of this study:

“People don’t consciously ponder the ways in which crime is like a virus or beast,” says one of the study’s authors, Paul Thibodeau, who is now a psychology professor at Oberlin College. “Instead metaphors subtly structure the way they understand the issue being described.”

The study continues to share that scientists and neurophysicists suspect that the brain triggers related concepts when processing a metaphor’s meaning. Thibodeau recommends, “Ask in what ways does this metaphor seem apt and in what ways does this metaphor mislead,” he says.

Now while I realize this isn’t the most tweetable post in the world, flacks everywhere should let this study get all over them like a colony of E. coli on room temperature mystery meat (see what I did there). Imagine what a better written pitch letter or press release could do for your client? Don’t believe me? Take it from another writer, some say a philosopher…

Aristotle states in Poetics:

“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 dissimilars.”

Yeah, so suck it. Or some such doth you know.