Isn’t language wonderful? Who hasn’t sat and listened as a consummate storyteller wove mental pictures for us with wonderful words?
Have you ever wondered why language evolved the way it did – after all we are told that “a picture is worth a thousand words!” – but is it; is it really?
If I were to ask you to draw a picture of a book, or a dog, or a cat or anything that is solid and visual you would probably be able to make a reasonable representation of it. But what if I asked you to draw ‘embarrass’ or ‘wistful’ or something more emotional what would you draw? And would the meaning be as clear as the word?
Sometimes we need vivid and expressive language to touch our listener’s emotions. We need to create an atmosphere of mutual understanding to instill a willingness to believe. Our mental pictures are created from our experience, memories and understanding of the visual aspects which we associate with the words.
Wordsmiths will use a variety of grammatical ploys to create the visual recognition within us. We may understand the results without understanding the methods used, so let’s consider two of the easiest ways for us to incorporate vivid language into our speeches.
Do you recall Wordsworth famous poem that starts “ I wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er hill and dale…” Here we mentally visualise the soft, delicate cloud being gently blown around the sky by unpredictable winds, and thereby come to an understanding of how Wordsworth was aimlessly wandering, solitary across the landscape.
Some similes are so well known that they have become clichés – ‘busy as a bee’ or ‘light as a feather’ no longer strike the listener with a unique mental picture; but an unusual simile can bring to mind a whole host of emotional responses “the smell of cooking from my grandmother’s kitchen wrapped around me like a well worn security blanket” – now didn’t that bring to mind a very special picture?
Similes can be used to trigger a specific response by likening one thing to another with a peculiarly unique common factor. It creates vivid language.
The second grammatical ploy, again used by vividly creative writers is the Metaphor. Here one thing takes on the attributes of another and those attributes are used to enhance the meaning of the original. Instead of being ‘like’ something else, they are actually referred to as if they have become that. For instance we use ‘at the foot of the mountain’ and most would understand exactly what we mean and precisely where we are indicating – even though we all know that mountains do not have feet! But by using metaphors more inventively we can create a strong visual component to our words.
Lee Iacocca once said “I talk about gasoline prices and interest rates because they have always been the twin engines that drive my business.” He was using a metaphor to drive home the importance of prices and interest rates.
Each of these uses the mental images created by common knowledge and experience to add that visual component to our words and generate an emotional response in our listeners. If we want to connect and engage with our audience we need to do more than baffle them with science! We need to engage them with an emotional component that will enable them to personally engage with our message.
To help us to do that we can co-op both Similes and Metaphors as champions in our cause, riding like white knights to our rescue when we need some vivid language.