Metaphorical language—which includes metaphors, similes, analogies, and other comparisons—is a powerful tool in social change communications.
Metaphors that rely on everyday objects or experiences can help us introduce unfamiliar issues or explain complex ones. This is especially helpful when we need to put a new issue on the public agenda or make sure that sound science informs policy decisions.
Metaphors can spark new associations and understandings, putting an issue in a new light and prompting people to rethink their opinions or assumptions. When we need to shift widely shared mindsets, the right metaphor can make the difference.
And because metaphors give us a new mental framework for thinking and talking about a topic, they can open up dead-end conversations and repetitive debates. Using metaphor can help us advance ideas and avoid wasting energy by rebutting talking points that halt progressive change.
Metaphors are powerful, and we can use them to build understanding and shape the conversation on social issues. But we need to use them wisely and carefully. Here are three principles for using metaphor as a tool for social change.
1. Rely on research.
Metaphors can powerfully affect understanding and opinions, but sometimes they work in ways we do not expect or foresee. A metaphor highlights things and hides others. Each comes with its own set of emphases and blind spots. We cannot reliably predict—based only on our own close-to-the-issue intuition—how large numbers of people will respond to a metaphor. The right comparison can advance our issues—but the wrong one can set us back.
We do not have to leave this to chance. The FrameWorks Institute has tested hundreds of metaphors on dozens of social issues over the years—with each freely available study typically involving multiple research methods and a sample of several thousand people. Therefore, in most cases, we can use metaphors that have been tested to make sure they faithfully represent important concepts, build understanding, and promote progressive policy preferences. On issues for which metaphors have not been tested, we can simulate their explanatory power with other techniques—like laying out cause-and-effect links or using well-crafted examples.
2. Introduce metaphors early—and explicitly.
Metaphors are more effective in social change communications than are other approaches. Explanatory metaphors help people make sense of a topic. If we introduce them early, they guide how people respond to the rest of the communication.
However, we should avoid introducing distracting metaphors. For example, if we start by naming the issue—as is common in political campaigning—that can bring up all the associations that people have with a topic, whether it is anti-Black stereotypes associated with “welfare” or the political polarization attached to “climate change.” Often, these are the very ideas we are trying to change. Reminding people of those beliefs makes changing mindsets and shifting thinking harder than they need to be.
If we begin by reciting the research on the topic, another common practice, it can cause people to tune out. This is especially true when we present people with lengthy lists of negative outcomes, leading people to conclude that the problem is too big to solve.
While avoiding the wrong metaphors and overwhelming research, we still often need to provide a context for our message. When we do not offer a frame of reference, people fall back on frames and mindsets they have picked up elsewhere. Metaphors can help us avoid this by proactively opening channels for people to think about new ideas.
For example, many communications about adolescent development start out by acknowledging the risks associated with adolescence and the need to protect young people from danger, or they cite statistics about the number of young people who experience mental health challenges.
Instead of using this approach, it can be more productive to lead with a metaphor of adolescence as a time of exploration, when young people need to test ideas, experiment with boundaries, and be able to take and learn from safe risks. Elaborating on the metaphor offers people a way to replace unproductive mental pictures of young people as reckless, and adolescence as a period of danger, with a more balanced understanding of the risks and opportunities, and a sense of the potential for powerful learning and development.
3. Extend metaphors over time, across contexts, and across networks.
For new ways of thinking to take root, we must continuously cultivate them. This involves repeating our ideas (without sounding repetitive) and engaging others in sharing and expressing those same ideas in their own way.
Metaphors lend themselves to both consistency and creativity, so many communications professionals can use them without sounding scripted or inauthentic. The basic comparison can and should remain stable—this is how a field taps into the power of repetition. But the emphasis, the style, and even the medium or messenger can vary significantly.
A good example comes from FrameWorks’ long-standing partnership with the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, which has led to the creation of several metaphors to translate key concepts in early childhood development. We have seen the metaphor of brain architecture used by a wide range of experts, including neuroscientists, policy advocates, and staff at child care centers. It has been used as an organizing theme for university lectures, tabletop games, media interviews, public-service announcements, and interactive museum exhibits.
Sometimes communications professionals highlight the importance of having a solid foundation; other times, they use the sequencing of a construction project to help illustrate a developmental concept. Through this varied set of expressions, the early childhood field has brought the same fundamental idea (early brain development matters) to life in fresh ways again and again, across a decade. As a result, public thinking and public policy have shifted in major and measurable ways.
Metaphors are not only literary devices but also devices for thinking. They can put a picture in the public’s mind where none existed before—and they can reshape and update our shared mental images of social issues. When we use them wisely in our social change communications, we can amplify our impact.
Explore the explanatory metaphors that FrameWorks has developed, through research, on a diverse set of issues, including the following: