The key to engaging an audience? Metaphors

The unconscious takes powerful notice of memorable metaphors, a fact that should figure more prominently in every public speaker’s rhetorical arsenal, says this expert.

The human mind—especially the unconscious—is still a mystery to us. Neuroscience pushes back the puzzlement, but we have a long way to go.

Psychology professor Adele Goldberg at Princeton University has boosted our knowledge. Her research focuses on the effect metaphors have on our brains. She’s found that if you say, “that was a sweet comment,” it will activate your taste centers and your amygdalae—the twin sections of your brain involved in decision-making, emotions, and memory.

Apparently our unconscious is literal, and if you tell it something is sweet, it gets almost as excited as if you put an ice cream sundae under its figurative nose.

What this response suggests is that the language we use—or fail to use—is incredibly important in directing the response of our audience and increasing its engagement with our messages.

If you speak often because of your job, e.g., if you’re an academic who lectures, then you’ve experienced looking out at your audience and noticing with a sinking heart that they don’t seem thrilled by what you’re saying. (I hope this deflation has happened very infrequently.)

I remember trying to get my university students excited about Shakespeare’s history plays and noticing a decided lack of enthusiasm. Some complained that Shakespeare’s language was too difficult and strange.

I refrained from telling them that I was working with middle-schoolers (ages 12 and 13) to put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream who were not put off by Shakespeare’s language. To the contrary, they played with the language, experimenting with varying ways to say their lines with gusto. They looked up anything that wasn’t familiar.

Too late, I know I should have upped the metaphor count in my lecture, using phrases from the five senses, talking about sweet lines, loud opinions, beautiful phrases, soft poetry, and smelly scenes. Had I done so, I would have awakened their unconscious and engaged their emotions, memories, and decision-making more energetically.

Do the same with your audiences. Reach for a metaphor. Put the language of the senses to work. Another earlier study found that people become more empathetic to other people’s pain if you got them to put their hands on rough sandpaper.

We are indeed quite literal in the inner workings of our minds. Tap into these connections when you deliver a speech. Especially if it’s a particularly intellectual or difficult speech—say a scientific paper or a health-care treatise on the success rates of drug delivery systems. By paying attention to metaphorical language, you can make yourself much more engaging for your (unconscious) listeners.

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.

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