June 06, 2013 28 Reactions

Why Metaphor Makes Writing More Powerful

By , under Content Watch. Anthony Kosner is a contributor to Forbes.com, developer and designer, content strategist, producer and web editor.

The Internet has put a premium on the speed of communication. Since it is instant, we have come to believe that we should be too.

But what get’s lost in the need for speed, and in the attempt to write for Google, is the richness of language that can slow a reader down and help them to see something differently.

What often gets cut out, when we are trying to get right to the point, is figurative language. This is an omission worth reconsidering. Cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen, in his most recent book, Louder than Words, shows why the use of metaphor in writing makes it more engaging  and arguably more memorable.

It is not just the uniqueness of construction that catches our attention, but that our brains actually understand metaphorical language by activating those parts of the brain that process the physical things referenced. In a segment on NPR about the book, Krish Sathian, a brain researcher at Emory University, explains how to the brain, a “rough day” literally connects to our experiences of touching things like sandpaper.

“When listening to these sentences containing textural metaphors, we found activity in the part of the brain that’s involved when we feel surfaces,” says Sathian.

This explains, perhaps, why certain kinds of long-form content work online. It’s not the length, but the richness of the language that evokes physical sensations in the mind of the reader. It may have not been the design of John Branch’s ‘Snowfall’ on NYTimes.com, in itself that was successful, but the way the design reinforced the chilly metaphors of the text to create a multi-modal experience.

This is where literary criticism meets cognitive science. When it comes to abstract things, Bergan says, “Humans are smart, but we’re still primates. When we describe abstract things that are hard to grasp, using words that more properly apply to concrete things, like motion through space, we’re playing to our primate strengths.”

For example, he said, there is a difference in how the following two statements are read:

  • This year, the balance in that account changed from $400,000 to $300,000.
  • This year, the balance in that account dropped from $400,000 to $300,000.

“Dropping is something you can see, or simulate seeing,” he said, “and it drags with it inferences from what you know about things moving in the physical world to the world of accounting.”

When we think about a physical thing dropping it engages us in a whole mental process.

“For instance, if something drops, it’s going to keep dropping unless some other force stops it, like it hits bottom or someone pushes it back up,” Bergan explains. “That engagement of what you know about what objects look like when they drop and how you interact with them makes your understanding of a financial system, for instance, different, and you could say richer.”

Bergan is careful, as a scientist, not to make claims about how vividly something may be remembered based on the quality of description, but it makes sense that the more parts of the brain are engaged with a given bit of content, the more opportunities for future retrieval. The central point is that, “people get immersed in narratives and start to create mental experiences of what it would be like to feel and see and hear the things that are described,” he said.

In the end, though, Bergan wonders “whether it’s less a matter of length than of the vividness of the prose. I’m reminded of the short story, apocryphally attributed to Hemingway: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

As far as how we can recover some of the richness of our language and still produce stories that match today’s shorter attention spans, Bergan suggests that “there are certain low-level linguistic things that help.” Using “you” in combination with progressive verbs, as in “you were swimming” versus “you swam,” is more likely to “leads people to engage in a process of experiencing what swimming is like.” Similarly, “specific words produce more detailed images than more general ones, use ‘dalmation’ instead of ‘dog’.”

“In terms of conveying rich content in fewer words,” Bergan continues, “maybe the key is to engage emotions. I’m not the first person to say this  Fox News and The Huffington Post do this really well. People feel invested in narratives that they have strong emotional reactions to  often because they’re empathizing with a protagonist and simulating what that protagonist might experience.”

The processes by which language evokes emotion in the brain is not well understood, but “describing a bill as ‘job-killing’ or a filibuster as ‘repulsive’” does create deeper reader engagement  fair and balanced, or not.

Bergan’s research raises the question as to whether there are, in fact, two different kinds of language, fast and slow. Analogous to Daniel Kahneman’s ideas about “thinking fast and slow,” it could be that language that traverses more parts of the brain  and that engages more in the “texture” of certain areas of the brain —take longer to process, and also create more memory traces.

“People get immersed in narratives and start to create mental experiences of what it would be like to feel and see and hear the things that are described.”

Bergan concurs that in typical lab experiments, “people definitely have different strategies at their disposal, and they can switch among them.” In a sentence reading task, “sometimes, you use a fast strategy  you don’t activate rich semantic knowledge about what’s being described, you just check to make sure everything’s roughly in order. Other times, you read richly and carefully.”

The fast strategy is good for “dismissive” reading where you are trying to identify a specific nugget of information and edit out the rest, but it can also lead you astray if there is any ambiguity in the text (as there often is!) Think about the question, “Can a man marry his widow’s sister?” If you immediately think the answer is yes … you need to slow down! (The man can’t marry his widow’s sister because he’s dead, having widowed his wife.)

Another interesting corner of Bergan’s research points to why richly visual language is not always the most appropriate choice. In exploring the impact of language on driving distraction, Bergan has come to the conclusion that content intended for people’s cars should go light on the visual and abstract. For drivers listening to someone talking through a hands-free device, they found “greater signatures of distraction from the visual language.” Understanding how readers visualize language is a powerful insight, but one that needs to be used responsibly.

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