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Safety Lasagne & The Wrong Fungus

Metaphors are like widgets for the mind. The point of a metaphor is to fit into two things — the world and your mind — and then turn, to unlock a different way of seeing in you.

A story might do that. A metaphor must.

When done well, stories evoke empathy and mutual identity. They build trust between speaker and spoken. But many researchers struggle with telling stories, and stories need you to tell them. Metaphors are easier to construct and — once they take hold, like “flattening the curve” — they don’t need the originator to replicate widely. That’s why, when you’re trying to convey a research-based paradigm to an audience struggling to understand what you’re saying — I think you’re better off finding the right metaphor than constructing a killer story.

You might remember the talk I gave last week — basically, research-driven organizations should strive to be fungal rather than viral in their marketing and communications. For my fungal model, I cited the miles-wide Oregon honey fungus regarded as the largest organism on Earth.

Kitty Gifford replied on Twitter:

I love this! Metaphors engage your critical mind. We immediately start testing its fit and transformative power. If it doesn’t fit and it doesn’t create new ways of seeing, it won’t replicate.

So I need to go back and adjust the fungus.

Emily Oster uses the “safety lasagne” metaphor in a recent newsletter to explain how the seemingly disconnected precautionary measures many schools are taking against COVID-19 knit together into a multilayered strategy of redundancy — like layers of lasagne noodles.

Without the metaphor: I would struggle to explain why a hybrid approach to online and in-person makes sense.

With the metaphor: I understand it helps reinforce Layers 2 & 3 of the safety lasagne.

I sent Oster’s post to a colleague who advises companies on software (and has school-age children). He immediately saw the utility.

So the metaphor works (for us). It has revelatory and explanatory power. It replicates.

Question: Are metaphors widgets for the mind? Is that the right metaphor? Or are they more like viruses? Could my fungus metaphor actually be…viral?

If you were already thinking about these questions, that shows the need to get the metaphor right. And the power of metaphor in the first place.