How to Speak in Metaphor

One thing people who know me say is that I use more metaphors than the average person. It has become the way I speak, especially at work. Someone recently asked me how that works and how the metaphors come to me.

The technique starts with an understanding of how your mind works. Based on several books about imagination, creativity, and cognition that I read when learning about UX Design, I have developed a mental model of my own mental processes. Your mind is a home office with a Desk, a Filing Cabinet, and an assistant that we will call Dobby.

The Desk

When you are speaking with someone, working on a project, or just reading this blog, you have the details of what you are working on sitting on a virtual desk in your mind. This is called “Working Memory”. The space on the desk is limited. You can’t put too many things on the desk or you will feel overwhelmed.

Context switching is difficult because you are clearing off your desk and replacing the contents with new contents.

The Filing Cabinet

The filing cabinet is your long term memory. It contains everything you have ever seen, heard, touched, tasted or experienced. It’s true that some things may be lost over time, but I am a believer that it’s in there somewhere, deep in the back of the lowest drawer.

Dreams are made up of these files. Every place you visit in a dream is actually taken directly from your memory banks and not created from scratch for the dream.

Dobby the Assistant

Dobby (from Harry Potter) is your subconscious. It is the thing that goes into the file cabinet and retrieves information and puts it on the desk. Dobby does not speak in words. He just runs back and forth between the desk and the file cabinet. He intuits what you need silently like a good house elf.


Creativity is basically the combination of ideas on your desk (working memory) with information from the file cabinet (long term memory). But how does this happen? Dobby is a wise, but mischievous assistant. He sees what you are working on (the desk) and will (without invitation) grab something from the file cabinet and throw it on the desk. Usually because it rhymes.

Rhyming is not just for the way words sound to your ears. Rhyming is the way things feel. When one thing “reminds” you of something else, that is Dobby throwing information on the desk that rhymes. Rhyming is the key to the metaphor.

Don’t ignore Dobby

Most people think Dobby is a nuisance. They think he is distracting the person from the task at hand. The working memory (the desk) should only contain information for the task at hand. Having all these random other things thrown on the desk is not helpful. This is wrong thinking.

You have to stop ignoring these rhymes. When something reminds of you of something else, you have to embrace that idea. Think “Why did Dobby put this on my desk?” It’s probably for a good reason. Usually, if you think for a moment about it, you will see the rhyme yourself. Ahh, these things are similar because it is a correlation, causation, parallel, sub-type, opposite, or other kind of connection.

Sometimes, when I am talking to someone, a word will pop into my head that makes me laugh inside. Dobby is making a joke because something rhymes in a funny way. You might think of this as a “Play on words”.

Did you know PUN is an acronym for Play On Words?

Jared Lipka’s favorite joke

Making the Metaphor

Once you see Dobby put the words on the table and you understand how they rhyme, you can say “This is like when…” If you do this enough, it will become habit.

The benefit of speaking this way is that (in my experience) people understand your point better if you say it with a metaphor. It creates a stronger pattern of communication.

I don’t know if this technique is teachable, but I figured I should write down how I do it. I wonder if your brain can work the same way?

Metaphor Dobby

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