Fresh metaphors, please

Words and phrases that may have meant something once, in Cannes

“Madame, all our words from loose using have lost their edge…”

Death in The Afternoon, by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway, as usual, hit the thing on the head. When words get used too often, their usefulness erodes. Sometimes we call that jargon. Or cliché.

It isn’t just inelegant, then, to talk of “leveraging solutions” and “stakeholder buy-in” and “customer satisfaction” – it’s not good communication full stop.

In The Science of Storytelling I came across an explanation of why this happens. It’s all about brains…

Researchers recently tested [the] idea that cliched metaphors become ‘worn-out’ by overuse. They scanned people reading sentences that included action-based metaphors (‘they grasped the idea’), some of which were well-worn and others fresh. ‘The more familiar the expression, the less it activated the motor system,’ writes the neuroscientist Professor Benjamin Bergen. ‘In other words, over their careers, metaphorical expressions come to be less and less vivid, less vibrant, at least as measured by how much they drive metaphorical simulations.’

The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr

So jargon can be excluding, annoying and sometimes dangerous. Loose meanings, loosely used, cause misdirection and misunderstanding. We hide the meaning of things even from ourselves when we start talking like an insider (or what we imagine an insider should sound like).

If you’re going to use images in your language, make sure they vivid and clear and new. If you’re just doing an impression of the last corporate shmuck’s soliloquy you heard, then you’re aiming low and no one is really listening to what you’re saying. (And if you’re reading that nonsense off a PowerPoint slide, you’re virtually guaranteeing that no one knows what you were trying to say – if indeed you were actually trying to say anything of substance in the first place.)

Sure, a lot of this is cultural, habitual, hard to stop doing; but the least you can do is to start to notice when you do it – and make a note to have a word with yourself later.

A horrifying version of us

The idea of “personal brand” seems to be resurgent. Ten years ago, when I wrote Me and My Web Shadow it was a thing – but then seemed to fade from conversation. I avoided using the term; reputation is a much more useful idea to focus on for individuals – it is something you can affect but it is something earned, an outcome, defined by the perceptions of others.

There’s something more controlled and designed about the idea of personal brand; an idea attached to it that you can set out how you will be seen and experienced by others. You can’t.

Reputation = what you do + what others think and say about you.

Perhaps the term personal brand is increasing used because of anxiety about how the internet can spawn mobs that will rip apart the reputation of an individual. An ugly phenomenon – once shocking, now commonplace.

Angela Nagle is an academic who studies the online culture wars. Even studying them can be hazardous, she’s found. Cross the alt-right and they will dox the offender. Question a liberal taboo, especially when it comes to identity politics and you will feel their wrath.

In a recent an interview on the FT Alphaville podcast, Nagle said:

The appeal of the internet and of social media was that it offered us this narcissistic pleasure whereby we could almost brand manage ourselves …while the internet can give you this persona… it can also take it away and present a horrifying version of who you are.

When we look at the horror-show of the public sphere on Twitter and other social media today it can seem like the internet has created a horrifying version of us.

Some of the phenomena we are living through will be understood and analysed by future historians. We don’t know where this is all going, but we are definitely going somewhere new and we’ve moving quickly. Nagle seems to be writing a first draft of the sociology of our accelerated connected times.


Have a listen to the podcast. I’ve also put Angela Nagle’s book on my reading list: Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right.

Image: The late, very great, Rutger Hauer presenting a horrifying version of us in Blade Runner.