When metaphors should kick the bucket

By Hasna Haidar | 29 Jul 2020

Brian Clark quotes Aristotle in his Copyblogger piece about the simple and instant effectiveness of metaphors. “The greatest thing by far,” said Aristotle, “is to be the master of metaphor.” Let’s face it – as a copywriter, it’s tough to disagree. Metaphors allow us to be more creative and playful with our language – and reward us with a self-satisfied high when we finally find the perfect one that encapsulates our intended message (or, hits the nail on the head).

Metaphors aren’t everyone’s cup of tea

But before you follow in Clark’s footsteps and comb through your content intending to reinvent the wheel, consider this: metaphors rely almost wholly on the reader. Your reader needs to be able to understand the metaphor itself, and figure out how it applies to the context in which you’re saying it. They need to be confident that they’ve come to the same conclusion you intended. While for many readers this thinking process will be over in the blink of an eye, others may struggle.

According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), making content readable for people with cognitive and learning disabilities means using plain, simple, literal language that is clear of jargon, metaphors, similes and idioms. As their user stories demonstrate, metaphors risk being misunderstood, ambiguous and exclusionary, leaving the reader confused and alienated. If your content is to address every potential client or customer, accessibility must be considered.

Some metaphors may not cross borders well

Metaphors and idioms are also worth reconsidering if you have an international audience. Not all turns of phrase can be translated accurately, and your audience may lack the cultural context that metaphors and idioms rely on. If you’re localising, translating or transcreating content, a metaphor-dense source file will need to be deciphered carefully to avoid miscommunication.

So, I can’t use metaphors at all?

If you take to metaphorical language like a duck to water, this may leave you in a bit of a pickle. Fortunately, there are options to keep your copy from sinking into mundanity. The first is to include an explanation or add a simple language alternative in brackets whenever you use non-literal text. Alternatively, you may find it easier to write your piece as you would normally, then, go back over the copy to identify metaphors, idioms, similes and jargon and replace them with simpler language. Your wider audience may tip their hats to you (give you credit) for it.