The Tall Lady With the Iceberg: The Power of Metaphor to Sell, Persuade & Explain Anything to Anyone

7 min readOct 3, 2021


Very often, I struggle to pick the right words off the vocabulary buffet table to explain my thoughts or ideas. Most times, I end up with a plate of words, messily stringed together, that does little to persuade my listeners of my viewpoint.

This weekend, I spent a few hours devouring the contents of a book, titled: “The Tall Lady With the Iceberg”. It’s a brilliant book for teaching the usage of Metaphors to be a more clearer and persuasive communicator.

The book makes a case for why the usage of metaphors can help in effective communication. It imparts tips for devising metaphors and gives plenty of examples for how they could be applied in different scenarios. I enjoyed this book immensely and it has made me realised the power of words clothed in imagery for effective communication. This post will be a summary of what I’ve learned from it and hopefully, it will be of use to you.

Why use Metaphors?

Whether making a presentation or a business pitch, many of us are tempted to inundate our listeners with all the facts and figures we have and hope that something will stick with them. We fail to realise that our listeners are already drowning in a tidal wave of information and our voice is just another sound drowned in the sea of voices.

To stand out, we need to employ words that triggers an experience in our listeners. They must be able to see it, feel it, maybe even hear or taste or smell it. That’s why, Metaphors is the best candidate for this task. It helps our listeners to associate our message with things they are familiar with and makes it memorable enough for them to remember, internalise and be swayed by our message.

A case in point is when Steve Jobs was courting a wavering John Sculley from Pepsi to become CEO of Apple, he famously asked: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”. Needless to say, the metaphor helped Steve to succeed in persuading John to join his cause.

What are metaphors?

Metaphors makes comparison between two things. Because they compare the unknown to what the listener is familiar with, Metaphors are able to simplify things or ideas and create an “aha!” moment in the listener.

There are different types of metaphors:

(1) Straightforward substitution: substitute a specific person/place/place/thing that embodies a certain set of qualities.

  • “He is the ‘Donald Trump’ of the department.”

(2) Simile: Using words such as “like” or “as”.

  • “John is like a pig”
  • “He’s as angry as a wounded bull.”

(3) Analogy: Taking a comparison and making it relevant by referring to an experience, a process, a story, a funny observation….that can cause your listener to forget what he thinks you are going to say and is transported to another story, to something interesting.

  • When asked to describe what it was like to take his company public and make $28 million, Nico Nierenberg replied, “I think the metaphor is childbirth. It was painful as hell, but when it’s over, you say, “Ahh, that wasn’t too bad.”
  • “My favourite city in the world is New York. Sure, it’s dirty — but like a beautiful woman smoking a cigar.”

The brain science behind Metaphors…

Contrary to what we are inclined to believe, our brains react to emotional stimuli more than cognitive stimuli, and to visual stimuli more than verbal stimuli.

Your left brain understands “I love New York,” but right brain lights up when it sees “I ♥ New York”.

When making a decision, the right brain has more say over the left brain. Therefore, good metaphors lights up the right brain and you will be sure to drive home a point if you speak in visuals that the right brain can relate to.

The Four-Step Metaphor workout

Follow the following 4 steps to devise your metaphor in a speech or presentation.

  1. Determine the Client’s Blindspot
  2. Snapshot the Client
  3. Create the Comparison
  4. Relate

Lets’ take a look at how the author applied the above mentioned workout to score a winning goal during a business meeting.

In our meeting, when the senior vice president objected to my lack of direct experience with advertising agencies, the conversation went this way:

Me: That is true, but let me ask you a question. You just won the DHL account [I had done my homework]. How much prior experience did your agency need to have in the overnight courier business to have the right to do DHL’s advertising? Let me suggest that the answer is “none.” You would learn the dynamics of the overnight courier business the way you learned the dynamics of the businesses of your other accounts [which I then named]. DHL just had to be sure you were the best darn advertising agency around. Isn’t that true?

SVP: [Drawing the word out slowly] Y-e-e-s…

Me: Well, the same is true with me. I don’t have to have an ad agency in my portfolio of accounts to do your presentation-skills training. I’ll learn the dynamics of your agency quickly the way I have the investment-banking, aerospace, and magazine industries, to name just three. You just have to be sure I know a heck of a lot about presenting — and I do. [Those last three words were said with quiet, rock- solid certainty and laser-lock eye contact.]

SVP: [She tilted her head sideways as the analogy sunk in and all she said was a quiet…] Oh.

1. Determine the Client’s Blindspot‌

The author’s client’s blindspot was the agency’s insistence on previous industry experience. They couldn’t see how someone without previous experience could be nonetheless highly qualified to do the job.‌

2. Snapshot the Client‌

The author had done some prior homework and knew that they had just won the DHL account.‌

3. Create the Comparison

Therefore, she created her analogy on the basis of that and compared their right to win DHL’s business, despite having no prior specific industry experience, to her right to win their business without an ad agency in her portfolio.‌

4. Relate

In a similar manner to how they function, the author reasoned that she was qualified to do the job for them as well. In this case, denying her would be tantamount to denying the SVP’s own firm.

Creating a metaphor based on a detail from your snapshot will shift your listener’s perspective on your message.

Ask yourself what is this like in my listener’s life? What else? What else? And, still, what else?

Remember, once you have said your metaphor, and successfully lowered the guards of your listener, relate it back to your point.

Building your Metaphor Muscle

  • The best running metaphor threads rely on themes or worlds rich in image-laden vocabulary.
  • Construct Metaphors that surprises your audience and hook them in. Make them as vivid as possible and use personification. For example, the advertisement of Cisco Systems 3700 router reads “I am a snarling pack of Dobermans.” to drive the fact that the router contained security features for corporate computer systems.
  • Use a story that is familiar with everyone. “You remember the story of Icarus?” a software salesperson asks his clients. “He flew too close to the sun and was killed when his wings, made of wax, melted. Well, your staff is relying on software to fly in one very hot marketplace. Our information software won’t melt in the heat of competition.”
  • Make numbers/statistics memorable by translating them into something real for your listeners — comparing to an emotionally charged issue or an easily visualised measurement. For example, when President Reagan spoke of the trillion-dollar debt, he put it in terms everyone — both economists and taxpayers — could grasp in an instant. He compared it to a stack of thousand dollar bills 67 miles high.
  • The best way to learn how to create metaphors is to look at examples. See how many of the world’s best known books have titles that uses metaphors. Eg, Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life.
  • The more invisible the concept you’re selling, the more important it is that your presentation relies on metaphoric visuals. And you can achieve that in your presentation by using an actual picture -a cartoon, photograph or a diagram.
  • Props are a great way to add impact as long as they are relevant and appropriate in tone and content. Props help add drama to the message and are memorable, if executed well. Even if people don’t remember the entire word for word of the speech, they remember the props.
  • You’ll find that just keeping your eyes and ears alert for metaphors or potential inspirations will awaken you to a world sparkling with them. The more of them you pick up and pocket, the more trained your eye and metaphor making skills will become.


The next time you find yourself feeling unsure about what words to pile on your plate from the vocabulary buffet table, try adding metaphors. 😉 You’ll be amazed at how much clearer your communication can become.

Btw, to understand the topic in greater depth, I highly recommend picking up the book for a read.

Gardens by the bay, Singapore 2021 — obviously not a relevant choice of image for this article’s topic…how random….




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