Do your attendees ride a rollercoaster of emotions throughout your event, enjoying the bubbly personality of your keynote speaker one minute, then smelling the reek of failure during a breakout on why bad things can happen to good attendees, even though there are no actual rollercoasters, fizzy presenters, or bad smells in the room? Ah, the power of the metaphor is mighty indeed, and now we have some science to back it up.
In a paper called, "Metaphor creates intimacy and temporarily enhances theory of mind," Andrea Bowesand Albert Katz with the University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada, explored how written metaphoric language affects empathy—and boy, does it! In three experiments, they found that those who read metaphorical statements did better on a test that asked them to read the emotions in someone's eyes in a picture than those who got a straight-language version. (Example: "Frank knew that Edward wasn’t reliable. Frank had told him some personal information and Edward told the rest of their friends about it. Edward suggested that Frank was prone to problems. Frank warned Kyle: 'Be careful what you say to him.' (Metaphorical: 'Watch your back around him')." They also found that those who got the metaphoric version ascribed a closer relationship between the speakers than those who got the straight version.
What processes might underlie this phenomenon? Bowes and Katz focus on the simulation-theory approach according to which people “…use their own, sometimes fragmentary, bodily reactions to make inferences about others.” That is, to understand what others are thinking or feeling we “simulate” their presumed responses using our own reference point, by imagining how we would react in that situation.
To enable comprehension of metaphors, people must rely on an extra-linguistic context consisting of past memories, thoughts, and emotions more than when they read literal text. Understanding how a hospital bed might resemble a taxi requires considerable processing and cultural context such as knowledge of the Marx brothers. In consequence, that additional processing primes people to “simulate” other people’s emotions later on when they inspect the test faces.
While the researchers were studying only written text, I don't think it's too big a stretch to think that verbal metaphors could have a similar effect, especially in a conference setting when, for the most part, people are looking to connect with the material and each other.
So go ahead and theme your conference around "Reaching new heights" or "Shooting for the stars"—eh, maybe not, since those are pretty tired. Which appears to be a bit of a problem with metaphors, many of which have become so common that they have edged over into trite and may not have the effect you might want—you would not believe how many light bulbs floating over people's heads came up when I searched for a "metaphor" image to go with this post! Not that the "thinking outside the box" image I ended up going with isn't a cliché too.
But don't be afraid to sprinkle some metaphoric magic dust around your meeting. It may take some thought to come up with just the right one for your meeting's goals and objectives, but it also just might help to build bonds between your attendees and speakers in new and surprising ways.
Image by IvelinRadkov on Thinkstock by Getty Images
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