13 Professional Speechwriting: Metaphor, Simile, and Theme

Lynn Meade

Picture of a jewish candlestick where the candle is broken
Tombstone of a Jewish woman depicting broken candles as a visual metaphor for the end of life.

It’s time to take your speechwriting to the professional level. To do that, you need to learn how to effectively use metaphors and similes and you need to learn how to weave those into a theme.

Let’s start with some definitions. Similes and metaphors both make comparisons. A simile makes an explicit comparison usually using like and as. According to Merriam Webster, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy.  You can use a variety of metaphors throughout a speech, but if you stick to one consistent topic, you have a theme. A theme is where you pick a comparison, and you use it throughout your speech. This gives a sense of unity and overall elevates the level of your speech.

What is needed for an effective metaphor?

An effective metaphor uses emotional phrases properly

According to an article in Psychology Today, “Metaphors are not just a literary technique; they are a very potent psychological technique.” In a study, people were told about climate change using a war metaphor or a race metaphor. Those hearing the war metaphor found the climate change situation more urgent and were more likely to increase their conservation behaviors.

Metaphors have a profound impact on how we think and act on social issues. In the study by Thibodeau and Boroditski, participants read about a crime-ridden city where the criminal element was a beast preying upon innocent citizens (animal metaphor), or was a disease that plagued the town (disease metaphor). When subjects were asked for a solution on how to solve the problem, those who heard about the animal metaphor supported strategies such as increasing police presence and imposing stricter penalties. Those who heard the disease metaphor favored seeking out the primary cause of the crime wave and bolstering the economy. The researchers concluded, “We find that exposure to even a single metaphor can induce substantial differences. People chose information that was likely to confirm and elaborate the bias suggested by the metaphor – an effect that persisted even when people were presented with a full set of possible solutions.” In short, the metaphor influenced how they saw the problem and what type of solution would fit the problem. 

Interestingly, while the metaphor influenced their opinions on the issues, they remembered the issue and not the metaphor.  The researchers suggested that even when the metaphor is covert, it affected the subject’s decisions.

An effective metaphor uses something simple to help the audience understand something complex.

Metaphors take hard-to-understand ideas and compare them to simple-to-understand ideas. Take, for example, the ever famous, “Life is a box of chocolates.” It takes something abstract, in this case, love, and compares it to something familiar and understandable, a box of chocolates.

An effective metaphor is one that is understood by the listeners.

A good metaphor works because the audience understands the thing that is being compared. When I told my son, he sounded like a “broken record,” he had not idea what I was talking about. One speaker told me that he made a reference to the “one ring to rule them all” to realize that only half of the audience had never seen the Lord of the Rings movies. He said, “I used a metaphor of a movie they had never seen to explain a concept they didn’t understand. Any understanding they might have had of the concept was lost because their attention was now focused on trying to understand a movie. “

An effective metaphor fits the cultural context.

In a study, students were given an argument about whether their university should require a senior thesis. Football phrases such as “handoff,” “touchdown,” and “fumble” were used. The results suggested that those who liked sports found the metaphor more engaging than those who did not like sports. For the non-sports fan, the metaphor had no more effect than the arguments that contained no metaphor.

An effective metaphor fits the situation.

The right metaphor is one that fits the occasion. Metaphors such as “passed on” and “candle dimmed” are used in eulogy speeches. “Beginning a new chapter” and “starting a new journey” are used for graduation speeches. “Retirement is a blank sheet of paper. It is a chance to redesign your life into something new and different.” This quote by Patrick Foley is an example of how retirement metaphors work. Other retirement phrases may be “unshackled” or “beginning a new highway.”

Check out this website about international metaphors for death


The greatest thing by far
is to be a master of metaphor
Aristotle


 

The big idea here is that it must be the right metaphor for the subject and the audience. Metaphors can help you understand complex ideas and can take everyday ideas and make them more interesting. To some degree, metaphors help you show, not tell. A well-told metaphor can help you create visuals in the mind of your audience. When it comes to this advanced language technique, I like to show, not tell. Let’s look at how metaphors have been used in speech, I’ll start with examples of metaphors in presidential speeches.

Presidential Metaphors

Presidential speeches

Watch this movie version of the 272-word Gettysburg Address and listen for references to birth and conception.

Let’s look at a few more examples of how presidents have used metaphors in their speeches.

  • We are now engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.  Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
  • And you have changed the face of Congress, the Presidency, and the political process itself. Yes, you, my fellow Americans, have forced the spring. Now we must do the work the season demands.”  Bill Clinton Inaugural Address
  • You can be the new majority who can lead this nation out of a long political darknessDemocrats, Independents, and Republicans who are tired of the division and distraction that has clouded Washington; who know that we can disagree without being disagreeable; who understand that if we mobilize our voices to challenge the money and influence that’s stood in our way and challenge ourselves to reach for something better, there’s no problem we can’t solve – no destiny we cannot fulfill. Barack Obama
  •   America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. George W. Bush, Speech after 911 Attacks.

Persuasive Metaphor

Metaphors can be very persuasive. Picking a metaphor that the audience relates to is especially important–most people can relate to pizza so that is the comparison that this TED speaker chose. Al Vernacchio criticizes the use of baseball as a metaphor for sex where there is a winner and loser– scoring, getting to first base, etc. He suggests instead that people think of sex as shared pleasure, discussion, and agreement–he suggests the metaphor of pizza. It’s an eight minute, easy to listen to speech, you won’t want to miss this.

Metaphor in Leadership

Simon Lancaster says metaphors are one of the most powerful pieces of political and leadership communication because they move us towards things or make us recoil.  He looks at phrases like the “financial storm” and the “dung heap of capitalism” as ways in which the use of words influences our perception of an issue.
(Watch the four-minute clip where he talks about metaphor. It is cued to start at the part where he talks about metaphor. )

 

If you have time, watch the whole talk to see how he shares his  six rhetorical techniques: Three breathless sentences, three repetitive sentences,  balancing statements, metaphor,  exaggerative statements, rhyming statements

Enduring Metaphors

There are metaphors that seem to stick around through the years. You will see these come up a lot in literature, in songs, and in speeches. These are sometimes referenced as archetypal metaphors. According to communication scholar Michael Osborn, “archetypal metaphors are grounded in prominent features of experience, in objects, actions, or conditions which are inescapably salient in human consciousness.”  Because the human experience aspect is so crucial to these metaphors, you tend to find them in some of the most significant speeches in history. The timelessness of these metaphors increases the likelihood that the speech will outlive its author.

Here are a few of the most prominent enduring metaphors. I’ll give you examples of each.

  • Light, Dark
  • Storm, Sea, Set Sail
  • Disease
  • Battle, war
  • Seasons, Sunrise, Sunset
  • Journey, Road

Seasons, Sunrise, Sunset

Winter in our Hearts

At the dawn of spring last year, a single act of terror brought forth the long, cold winter in our hearts. The people of Oklahoma City are mourning still.
Al Gore, Oklahoma Bombing Memorial Address

Winds of Change
The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.
Harold MacMillian, British Prime Minister

New Birth of Spring

This year a new birth will occur. The physical being that will be its offspring will be like the new beginning which occurs when the spring rains wash away the dead leaves of winter and give life to the summer green which, as an expression of the rhythm of the seasons, blankets our earth. That new birth will signal the wonder that we have begun to construct a new social order.
Nelson Mandela, Address to the African National Congress

 

 

Light and Dark Metaphor

“If you want a love message to be heard,
it has got to be sent out.
To keep a lamp burning,
we have to keep putting oil in it.”
Mother Teresa

Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I See the Promised Land Speech

The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts.
Jawaharlal Nehru, Eulogy to Mahatma Gandhi

The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science
Winston Church Hill, The Finest Hour

John Kerry will be sworn in as president, and John Edwards will be sworn in as vice president, and this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness, a brighter day will come.
Barack Obama, Democratic National Convention

 

 

Journey, Travel, Destination 

 

I believe we can give our middle-class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity.

I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs and that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices, and meet the challenges that face us.

Barrack Obama, 2001 Democratic National Convention

 

Storm, Sea, Sail

Storm

That storm sweeps across the human habitat. Like the spring rains, it seeks to drive away the pestilences that continue to afflict the world of living beings, the universal malignancies which seem to have found a home in our diseased society.
Nelson Mandela, Address to African National Congress

Stormy Sea
It’s been quite a journey this decade, and we held together through some stormy seas. And at the end, together, we are reaching our destination.
Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address

Navigate Choppy Waters
It’s been my privilege to launch Baylor upon this exciting journey of Baylor 2012 and lead the university beyond the inertia of the status quo. Now that the voyage is well underway, it’s time for someone new to navigate these sometimes choppy waters while continuing to aim for the carefully charted destination ahead. President Robert B. Sloan, Baylor University

 

Sails into the Wind
Ted Kennedy has gone home now, guided by his faith and by the light of those he has loved and lost. At last, he is with them once more, leaving those of us who grieve his passing with the memories he gave, the good he did, the dream he kept alive, and a single, enduring image – the image of a man on a boat; white mane tousled; smiling broadly as he sails into the wind, ready for what storms may come, carrying on toward some new and wondrous place just beyond the horizon. Barack Obama Eulogy for Ted Kennedy.

 

 

Battle, War 

In an analysis of war metaphors in public discourse, researchers concluded that war metaphors are omnipresent because they draw on a common theme that can be communicated in many different situations. War metaphors work because they express an urgent negative emotion that captures attention and can motivate action.

Here are a few examples of the battle/war metaphor that come up in speech.

  • I am battling a headache.
  • My friend beat cancer.
  • He confronted his worst fear.
  • I’ve got to tackle my taxes tonight.
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • His criticisms were right on target.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
  • He shot down all of my arguments.
  • Attack a position.
  • Physicians battle against death.
  • The disease attacks our bodies.
  • War on poverty/plastic/drugs/Christmas

 

I challenge you to spend one day writing down all the war and battle metaphors you hear, I think you will be surprised. Now that we agree that they are ever-present, let’s look at a few speech examples.

We are engaged in a great civil war and this campus is one of the many battlegrounds. The war I’m referring to is cultural rather than military, but something very vital is at stake. Today the battle is for your hearts and minds, for the freedom to think the way you choose to follow that moral compass that points to what is right.
Charlton Heston, NRA, Free Thought and Freedom

So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin? Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty? Lyndon B. Johnson, The Great Society

 

Simile

A simile makes a comparison using like or as.

A room without books is like a body without a soul.  Cicero

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.  Albert Einstein

A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open. Frank Zappa, Musician

When I joined Apple in 1998, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was going to get to spend the rest of my professional life working for Steve Jobs. But fate comes like a thief in the night. The loneliness I felt when we lost Steve was proof that there is nothing more eternal, or more powerful, than the impact we have on others. Tim Cook, Ohio State Commencement.

Rain, somebody said, is like confetti from heaven. So even the heavens are celebrating this morning, joining the rest of us at this wonderful commencement ceremony.” USSC Justice John Roberts, Cardigan Commencement Address

Theme

The use of theme and figurative language separates the amateurs from the pros. Sometimes a theme is referred to as an extended metaphor. Taking your comparisons and weaving them into an overall speech theme takes work, but it elevates your speech.   It’s time you learn to be one of the pros. I want to demonstrate how to brainstorm a theme and then give you numerous examples to show you how it works in a speech.

Do This Before You Begin to Write Your Speech

When using a theme, make a chart of the word and all the synonyms you can think of. After you have exhausted your ideas, then you should look into a thesaurus. Write any words related to the topic.  For example, when looking at the word, “foundation,” the words “build” and “construct” are related. Finally, make a column of all the opposite words you can think of on your topic.

Brainstorm
the Word 
Foundation
Words Related
to Foundation
 Words Opposite
of Foundation 
  • Foundation
  • Bedrock
  • Firm footing
  • Solid Ground
  • Well-grounded
  • Understructure
  • Underpinning
  • Substructure
  • Footing
  • Groundwork
  • Base
  • Backbone
  • Root
  • Fundamental
  • ABC’s
  • Genesis

 

  • Support
  • Build
  • Construct
  • Bridge
  • Build up
  • Nuts and bolts
  • Infrastructure
  • Genesis
  • Spring
  • Grounds
  • Architecture
  • Fabrication
  • Develop
  • Keystone
  • Pillar
  • Establish
  • Shaky ground
  • Crumbling foundation
  • Sand
  • Groundless
  • Teardown
  • Cut out from under
  • Undermine
  • Undercut
  • Destroy
  • Decrease
  • Capstone
  • Climax
  • Crown
  • Pinnacle
  • Culmination

A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundation of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.  These acts shattered steel but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.
George W. Bush, Speech After 911 Attacks

 

When you are developing your speech, you can use a stand-alone metaphor, or you can weave it into a theme. Ceremonial speeches lend themselves to themes. Funerals, tributes, graduation speeches, and toasts, all work well when given a theme. Sometimes that theme is picked because it carries the emotion and sometimes, the theme is picked because it fits the person. Let me give you some examples. In the first example, Tasha Smith a student in my class was giving a tribute to her grandmother who was a gardener. It lends itself to a speech wide theme:

Plucking the weeds out of my life and out of the lives of others. I realize that it was never about your flower garden. It was really about tending to the things of the heart. Tasha Smith, Tribute to Grandma.

For the next example, my student, Drew Oglesby gave a best man toast. Because he and his friend often took road trips together, he used the theme of travel. He told stories of their road trips, of maps, of getting lost, and of the journey. In the wedding toast, he passes the map and the title of “road trip captain” off to the new bride.

I trust these hints are helpful the next time you two are traveling.  Remember, it is not the road trip that I will always cherish, but the great guy I was able to share it with. So today, I raise a glass to you two.  Mr. and Mrs. ___ because I know you are going to experience far greater adventures than I could ever  imagine. I am confident you two will love each other with every wrong turn in life and you will love each other with every flat tire and detour. I know you will always be there for each other, and I am positive you (the bride) will make the perfect road trip captain!

Filmmaker, Steven Spielberg used the theme of dreams in his 2020 graduation address.

Dreams are a great test. Because a dream is going to test your resolve, and you’re going to know a dream from a pipe dream. You’re going to know a dream from a casual brush with something that you got excited about, and then it evaporates. A real dream is something that not only hangs on to you but you will hang onto it. And it will power you through every obstacle that people and your environment will throw against you.

Because if we’re in service of our dreams versus our dreams being in service to us it becomes something greater. It allows us to be game and it allows us to get over our fear to go forward no matter what obstacles are thrown in our path.

 

Former president Ronald Reagan spoke to the nation after the space shuttle challenger crashed. He masterfully used the theme of exploration. Listen carefully as he uses words such as “Pioneer, daring and brave.”

President Ronald Reagan used the exploration, pioneer, and frontier theme in his speech about the Challenger crash.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the school children of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face

 


When Using a Theme, Use Consistent Metaphors

When creating a speech with a unifying theme, it is helpful to be consistent with your metaphor. Not only does it help listeners to understand, but it also elevates the theme. Just for fun, look at this mixed metaphor from President Obama.

Even though most people agree that I’m being reasonable; that most people agree I’m presenting a fair deal; the fact they don’t take it means I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right.
Barack Obama messing up Star Wars and Star Trek references while working with Republicans in Congress.

I think this is likely a mess up rather than a mixed metaphor, it does bring up the point that our minds struggle when given two different metaphors to work with.

 

Kenneth Burke’s Four Master Tropes

Literary theorist Kenneth Burke popularized a vocabulary that allows us to think about various rhetorical devices so we can make sense of experiences.  He believed that by understanding them we could discover and describe “the truth.”  Let’s begin with a definition. What is a trope? It is a way of presenting thought in language. So, Burke wanted to look at how we think based on the language that is being used.

Do you need to know these words to write a good speech? Not at all.  This discussion is here to help you understand the theory that you will need in other classes, it is here to give you a vocabulary to impress your friends, but most of all it is here to help you consider the thought behind the language.

  1. Metaphor:  A metaphor substitutes one word for another or one idea for another based on some semblance.
  2. Synecdoche: Synecdoche substitutes one part for the whole. A coach who says he needs “fresh legs” or “fresh eyes” means that they want the whole person–not just the eyes. To have “boots on the ground” means to have the whole soldier on the ground.  When someone is “counting heads” they are counting more than just the head and the Navy a navy officer saying, “All hands on deck” is expecting more than just hands.
  3. Metonymy: A metonymy elaborates by reducing a concept. It reduces a larger idea to a single word or phrase.  When we say, “the White House issues a statement” we don’t mean the building itself. “Hollywood is corrupt” is a reference to something larger and “beware of the bottle” is not a warning about a bottle, but about the effect of alcohol.
  4. Irony: Substitutes a statement for its opposite. What is said contradicts what is meant.  When you see that you have a flat tire and say, “That’s great.” You mean just the opposite.

Kenneth Burk in Grammar of Motives

Key Takeaways

Remember This!

  • A metaphor is a comparison.
  • A simile is a comparison that uses “like” or “and.”
  • A theme is a type of extended metaphor.
  • An effective metaphor: uses emotional phrases properly, uses a simple thing to help the audience understand something complex, is understood by listeners, fits the cultural context

 

Side Note: I have tried to include speech samples from various cultures, various people groups, and various political leanings. I purposefully chose speeches that represent a variety of topics to show all the different ways these speech devices are used. You may not agree with the point of view of some of the speakers (there are some of them I do not agree with), but that doesn’t keep us from respecting their ability to construct a good speech. 

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Smith, T. Tribute to Grandma. University of Arkansas.

Spielberg, S. (2020). Some Good News Graduation. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IweS2CPSnbI Standard YouTube License

Thibodeau P.H.,  & Boroditsky L (2011) Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0016782

Ventura, J. (2016). Sh*t politicians say The funnies, dumbest, most outrageous thins ever uttered by our leaders. Skyhorse Publishing.

Vernacchio, A. (2012). Sex needs a new metaphor. Here’s one. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.ted.com/talks/al_vernacchio_sex_needs_a_new_metaphor_here_s_one Standard YouTube License

Wise, A. (2020, April 17). Military metaphors distort the reality of COVID-19. Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/military-metaphors-distort-the-reality-of-covid-19/


University of Arkansas Student Speech Samples from Tasha Smith, Tribute to Grandma, Drew Oglesby, Roadtrip Captain.

 

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Advanced Public Speaking (BETA) by Lynn Meade is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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