Communication 101

What Is a Metaphor? Examples, Uses, and More

June 7, 2022
5 Min Read

Most adults remember learning about metaphors in high school. Sure, they may not remember everything their English teacher said about the comma but can conjure up bits and pieces of those classroom discussions. 

As it turns out, metaphors might be just as important as teachers said they are! We all know that business communication is always at risk of turning stale. Incorporating figures of speech like metaphors into your presentations, meetings, and discussions can make the entire conversation more vibrant. 

A well-placed metaphor can also describe things and concepts that literal language can’t. Poised takes a deeper dive into metaphors below!

What Is a Metaphor?

Essentially, a metaphor (originally the Latin metaphora or the Greek metaphorá) is a literary device that links two ideas that appear unrelated on the surface to help readers see them in a fresh light.

Metaphors are as old as literature itself. Aristotle saw mastery of the metaphor as an indicator of genius. William Shakespeare loved to use metaphors, as did Emily Dickinson. 

Basic Examples of Metaphors in Literature

Broken down to the most basic form, a metaphor shows that two concepts are essentially the same. Consider this sentence: He is a night owl. The two things in the sentences are directly equated emotionally and visually; they’re represented as one and the same. In other words, a metaphor goes deeper than showcasing mere similarities between two things as a simile does.

We can assume that the night owl in the example sentence doesn't actually look like the bird of prey. He probably doesn't have a revolving head, scaly feet, and feathers. The phrase simply means the man is comfortable being awake and doing things in nighttime environments. The implied comparison conveys a fact about the man in a creative, clear, and colorful way.

Metaphors are one of the best literary devices for packing detailed descriptions into very few words. In his poem The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes wrote, "the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.”

Compare that rich, direct metaphor to a more tedious alternative: “The moon was full on that dark and stormy night, and it seemed like a bright round object similar to a coin; but more like a new coin instead of an old, dirty one you might find on the ground."

In other words, you can say a lot through a metaphor, and it can make your speech and other forms of communication much more powerful. Metaphors can make communication more exciting, insightful, and fun when executed properly. And that applies to the workplace as well.

What Are Some Examples of Metaphors?

There are five basic types of metaphors to consider adding to your box of communication tools:

  1. Standard metaphor
  2. Implied metaphor
  3. Visual metaphor
  4. Extended metaphor
  5. Malaphor

A standard metaphor is also known as a “direct” or “simple metaphor.” It follows the fundamental formula of this thing is really this other thing. Phrases like "love is a battlefield" and "a fish out of water" are standard metaphors.

Implied metaphors also work on the basic formula but employ subtler imagery to suggest a correlation between two things instead of stating it directly. For example, saying that a man "barked orders" is more eloquent than saying “he was a barking dog.”

A visual metaphor, also known as a “pictorial metaphor,” is a common metaphor heavily used in visual marketing mediums. You might notice a sports car ad with the image of an exotic cat to imply speed, power, and a luxurious lifestyle. You'll also notice visual metaphors in safety and warning signs.

An extended metaphor appears in longer story beats or recurs throughout a literary work or speech.

Let’s consider this famous example from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The main character opens a speech with the sentence "this is a valley of ashes" and repeatedly highlights the ash-gray men, ash-covered houses, and other details that gradually build the comparison of the city's impoverished residents to the image of ash.

A malaphor or "mixed metaphor" refers to changing a commonly used metaphor to achieve a different meaning. For example, you might say, "one man's day is another man's dollar" or "don't count your blessings before they hatch." Malaphors are often humorous and lighthearted but can also convey clever ideas when properly placed.

How Are Similes and Metaphors Different?

Similes and metaphors are closely related, which explains why they are so often confused. A metaphor uses one idea in place of another one. A simile uses "as,” "like," or "similar to" to link two ideas. 

Take, for example, the phrase lips red as roses. This phrase utilizes a simile to visually describe a person. The word "as" is the connecting word. But it would be a metaphor if you said her lips were blooming roses. Remember that metaphors equate things and ideas directly without using connecting words.

Going back to the metaphor, “he is a night owl,” you could use a simile to get the same point across. He stayed awake, working on his project as easily as an owl. Or: He embraced the nighttime like an owl to work his most productive hours yet.

Metaphors and similes make communication more interesting, beautiful, and compelling when executed properly. 

How Are Metaphors and Analogies Different? 

Analogies are another type of figurative language often confused with metaphors. They are quite similar, but there is one key difference between the two literary devices: Metaphors directly state a comparison between two things, and analogies add further explanation to the comparison.

The primary purpose of metaphors is to inspire emotion in your audience by creating an engaging visual image. Then, an analogy can drive your audience to a thought-out, logical conclusion about the topic under discussion. 

The whole point of analogies is to compare terms or ideas and direct listeners to a specific point of thought. Analogies are typically much longer and more in-depth than metaphors. 

Here are a few examples of literary analogies:

  • “They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water” (George Orwell).
  • “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” (E. B. White).

How Are Metaphors and Allegories Different?

The simplest way to understand an allegory is to view it as a metaphor that occurs throughout an entire story. Allegories take their time, unlike metaphors.

Allegories typically come in the form of a tale or story and guide readers or listeners to a conclusion through symbolism. In longer works, the symbolism evolves and conveys different ideas over the length of the story.

Here’s another way to look at it: Metaphors usually occur in a single sentence, and allegories can span many films, shows, or books. If you prepare well beforehand, you could even use an allegory throughout a work presentation to drive home your key points and ultimate message.

Here are some of the most famous allegories in literature:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)
  • The Mask of the Red Death (Edgar Allen Poe)
  • The Pilgrim's Progress (John Bunyan)
  • Animal Farm (George Orwell)
  • The Tortoise and the Hare (Aesop)

When Should You Use Metaphors?

Let's briefly look at how to know when to use metaphors in your everyday life:

Use Metaphors To Make Convincing Points

At the structure of every successful presentation or meeting is a list of key points. These are ideas that you want your listeners to take with them if they don't get anything else from the meeting. Drawing direct comparisons will elicit powerful images and allow your audience to absorb your key points in a fresh, memorable way.

Use Metaphors To Engage Listeners

Creating a work environment that fosters fun, productive team meetings and collaboration sessions takes a lot of work. Any professional can attest to how business communications are often stale and uninspiring.

If you want to engage your listeners at your next presentation or virtual meeting, employ some well-placed metaphors to illustrate your points and ideas. Just be sure to avoid clichés! Some people consider phrases like “heart of gold” to be dead metaphors — ones that have lost their meaning to overuse.

Use Metaphors To Help Someone Understand a Concept

One of the biggest advantages of using metaphors in speech or writing is that it helps to explain ambiguous or otherwise hard-to-describe concepts. By directly comparing terms your audience can relate to, you can confidently deliver your message and build your reputation as a competent communicator.

Poised Improves Communication in Real-Time

Well-executed metaphors can make your key points more convincing and your overall message more compelling. Take time to learn some interesting, descriptive metaphors that you can incorporate into your virtual meetings and other workplace functions.

And don’t forget to take advantage of tools like Poised communication software. Our platform will give you real-time insights into how you can communicate with more impact, and no one has to know you’re using it.


Where Does the Word Metaphor Come From? | Owlcation

Metaphors for Life That Can Fit Your Journey | Verywell Mind

An Emmy-Winning Writer on How To Use Metaphors Correctly To Improve Your Business and Sales Presentations | Business Insider

Dead Metaphor Definition and Examples | ThoughtCo

Say it like you mean it.

Improve your commmunication skills with Poised

Sign up for Free
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.