Metaphorical Brilliance


Stories are how we make sense of the world. They also resonate when you need to make a point. Used properly they’re more than just a good yarn — they’re an essential development tool.


Kevin McAlpin


Are you sitting comfortably? Then we can begin by demonstrating the power of the story, with, you guessed it, a story.


You’re a passenger in an aeroplane shortly before take-off. It is the end of a long day and you are tired. To make things worse, your young child is travelling with you and he is being fractious. Finally, you manage to pacify the boy with a sweet and gratefully pick up a copy of the evening newspaper as anaesthetic for the journey home. As the aeroplane starts to taxi toward the runway, the flight attendants begin to go through the safely routine, pointing out the emergency exits and outlining the key actions necessary for all passengers should an emergency occur. Like most of the other passengers, you ignore this presentation and delve deeper into your paper. The aircraft takes off and you doze as it speeds through the night sky.

Suddenly, the unthinkable happens. There is an immediate and unexpected loss of air pressure. Automatically oxygen masks drop down towards the passengers’ faces but the mask that your son should take is too high for him to grasp and he starts to choke for air. Panicking, you wrestle with the mask, desperately trying to get it to make contact with your son’s face, but it is not easy. To your horror you feel yourself sliding into unconsciousness for lack of oxygen. You both slump down into your seats and slowly turn blue. Unread in the seat pocket in front of you is the card instructing passengers, in the event of loss of oxygen, to place a mask on their own face before attempting to help anyone else.

As a successful coach you need to gain credibility, build the relationship and define success with your client. However, before that there is the by-no-means small issue of yourself as coach: you need to put your own oxygen mask on first. For the coach there is a prime need to be in good shape as a private person before starting the potentially demanding job of attempting to help someone else. Hence the metaphor of the oxygen mask.


In this article, we shall be dealing with you as a coach and the use of metaphors and stories. In giving the oxygen mask example above, we have already shown one example of the use of metaphors to aid learning, impact and information retention.

We’ll focus on:

  • Use of stories and metaphors in language
  • The impact of real-life stories
  • Reframing and drawing out the implications of a story
  • Effective use of metaphors.

The module will look at two categories of metaphor: firstly the longer story, and secondly the metaphors we use in language. When someone says ‘Working here is like hitting my head against a brick wall’, they are clearly not actually doing that, but that is how they are metaphorically making sense of it.

We often hear metaphors in everyday language. Phrases such as:

  • ‘I am hitting my head against a brick wall’
  • ‘He looked as cold as ice’
  • ‘She had a face like thunder’
  • ‘His face rings a bell’
  • ‘It was raining cats and dogs’
  • ‘She came down on me like a ton of bricks’
  • ‘You are getting on my nerves’
  • ‘That was a hard pill to swallow’
  • ‘We are going round and round in circles’.

We can utilise these ourselves as coaches to get our point across. For example, when a coachee is looking to find out what is important for their work, a coach could say, ‘We need to sieve the gold nuggets from the sand’ or ‘We need to build the foundations first, the pillars of your success.’

Making Metaphors and Stories Work for You

Do the words ‘Once upon a time’ remind you of stories you heard when you were a child? Do you start to get drawn in? And how is this relevant to life today and to business?

Story telling has been used in the spread of learning and the development of human potential for almost as long as people have used language. Stories abound in religion and in both social and organisational cultures — and they are in almost constant use as a means of educating and developing the very young. So what’s to stop us from using stories as a means to help develop the not-so young?

As an executive coach, you can use stories as a metaphor for describing different aspects of business life more vividly, as a means of moving the client’s attitude or confidence forward, or (very often) as a means of giving yourself some credibility. For example, you might say ‘I remember when I was first made up to be a general manager and how I almost caused a strike with my first so-called executive decision. Now what that taught me was …’. What this story has done is illustrate that not only have you held down a senior role, but also that you, very humanly, made mistakes and — more importantly — you learnt from them and are able to pass on that learning.

Examples of real stories that have undoubtedly changed attitudes and lives abound. There are so many that it would be futile to attempt to list them. Instead, we give here examples of two well-known stories, which are also highly metaphorical and which have made a difference. We conclude with one less well-known one in greater detail.

For the coach there is a prime need to be in good shape as a private person before starting the potentially demanding job of attempting to help someone else.

One of the best-known stories on the subject of personal development is the biblical parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14-30). Not only does it expound the fact that we all have a responsibility to make the most of what we have got, but it can also be used as a metaphor for focusing on one’s principal accountabilities at work. The metaphorical talents work both as financial and human currency.

The Boy and the Starfish

A much more modern parable is the story of the boy and the starfish.

A young boy walks across a beach at low tide. To his horror, he finds the large expanse of sand covered by literally thousands of stranded starfish – all of whom will die as the sun dries them out. Frantically, the boy starts to gather them up one by one and to carry them back to the sea.

‘Don’t be silly,’ admonishes his parent. ‘You cannot possibly make a difference with so many starfish. You cannot save them all.’

‘Perhaps not,’ replies the boy, ‘but I can make a difference to the ones that I do save!’

This is indeed a powerful message. It is also a powerful metaphor. You can always make a difference, and one of the benefits of being coached is that it will help you make more of a difference.

Finally, there is the story of ‘The Bear that Wasn’t’. It is a great story and it illustrates for us all the need to ask ourselves some searching questions about who we really are — and who we are really meant to be.

The Bear that Wasn’t

Once upon a time, there was a bear that lived in a forest. Being a smart bear, he knew that when the leaves fell and the geese flew west it was time to go into a cave and hibernate. This he did.

While he was hibernating, builders came and built a huge factory right over the bear’s cave so that when he woke up, he found himself standing in the middle of a factory. The foreman came up to him. ‘Hey you,’ he said, ‘get back to work!’

‘But I’m a bear,’ said the bear.

‘No, you’re not,’ replied the foreman. ‘You’re a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.’

‘But I’m a bear,’ said the bear.

So the foreman took the bear to the undermanager, who told him to get back to work.

‘But I’m a bear,’ said the bear.

‘No, you’re not,’ said the undermanager. ‘You’re a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.’

So the bear carried on protesting and was taken up through each level of the hierarchy, where everyone told him that he was a silly man who needed a shave and wore a fur coat. Eventually, as he continued to protest, he was taken to the zoo and to the circus to argue his case with ‘real’ bears. They said, ‘He can’t be a bear because if he were, he would be in this cage with us. He is just a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.’

And so the bear gave up and said to himself, ‘Perhaps I am what they keep telling me I am.’

So he was put to work on a machine and was miserable.

After a long time, the factory closed and all the other workers went elsewhere. The bear was left standing outside in the cold. He looked up. The leaves were blowing off the trees and the wild geese were flying west. Something deep within him told him that it was time to find a nice warm cave and to hibernate.

But I can’t do that,’ he said to himself, ‘because I’m not a bear. I’m just a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.’ So he sat outside in the cold, the snow fell and he began slowly to freeze to death.

Finally, he saw sense. ‘Who cares what it is they tell me I am? If I were a bear, I could go into that cave over there and be happy and warm – and I want to be happy and warm.’ So he went into the cave.

As he happily settled down to hibernate, he realised that he was not a silly man who needed a shave and wore a fur coat — he was a real bear. And he was not a silly bear either!

The moral of this story is that we all too often believe what other people tell us we are, or ought to be. True happiness lies in discovering for ourselves what we really are — and then being it.

Reframing for Maximum Effect

Stories are entertaining and give great value, but the value can be greatly enhanced if you reframe them.

While a particular story may be thought provoking or entertaining, the real skill of the coach lies in helping the client to recognise the implications for themselves. For example, challenging follow-up questions might include these:

  • What does that story say about you?
  • Can you recognise any of your attitudes within it?
  • What about your organisation – can you see elements of it within the allegory?
  • Is there anything that takes place within the story that might shed light on what you yourself could do?

It is, of course, possible to drill down further, depending upon the nature of the story itself, but the foregoing should give you a good starting point. The truly great thing about metaphors is that the client will take the learning they need to from them, and therefore the same metaphor can have completely different meanings to different clients. Metaphors are great ways of accelerating learning too – the comment ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ is certainly true.

The meanings of metaphors can be many.

Ten Themes Used in Coaching

  • Overcoming adversity and resistance
  • Goal setting
  • Problem solving
  • Different perspectives
  • Team working
  • Success
  • Attitudes, beliefs and reframing
  • Empowerment
  • Taking action
  • Self-esteem.

10 Metaphors to Accelerate Learning

Ten tips to make metaphors effective:

  1. Use sensory language so that the listener can see, feel, hear and notice what is happening in the metaphor.
  2. You need to have confidence in what you are saying and how you are saying it.
  3. Use suspense to entice the listener to want to know what comes next.
  4. Ensure the story is appropriate for the audience and will enhance communication, not put up barriers in the audience.
  5. Practise and re-practise telling the story, visualising it in your mind.
  6. Encourage the listener to identify with the story.
  7. Use humour and change meanings quickly to increase engagement.
  8. If you do not feel comfortable telling the story, give the client a written copy of the story to read.
  9. Ask questions of the client and get them to relate it to their own situation in order to embed the learning.
  10. Enjoy it.

The Power to Move

Metaphors and the right use of stories can resonate and motivate your audience. Of course, it’s part of the larger chapter of your role as manager and coach.

Effective coaching offers huge potential for personal and organisational development. From behavioural changes and performance improvements, to renewed employee engagement, measurable difference through sustainable results into the long term will materialise.

Explore the Coaching for Performance Programme