The Great Chain Metaphor

The fourth post in a series on metaphor

Humans establish meaning by transferring properties from one object to another through metaphor. But, there’s something odd about this property-transfer action–the fact that it’s unidirectional. Why does “Meghan is a rock” work, while “a rock is Meghan” doesn’t?

The reason is found in the Great Chain Metaphor.

We think of humans as higher order beings than animals, animals as higher than plants, and plants as higher than inanimate substances. With each of these levels, there are higher and lower sub-levels, so that dogs are higher order beings than insects and trees are higher than algae…Thus, where a being falls in the scale of beings depends strictly on it’s highest property.1

This concept is powerful because somehow, humans understand it innately. We understand by default that a) our species sits at the top of the stack and b) such a position affords us the benefit of containing all of the properties of the levels below us. That’s a ton to unpack, so let’s start with an example like the property of life.

Humans, animals and plants share the property of life, but the “level” of that life varies. While people, cats and geraniums can all grow, eat, age and die, plants live in one location, cats always land on their feet, and people can drive cars. So, although all three share the property of life, animal and plant life is more restrictive than humans.

And while inanimate objects don’t possess the property of life, yet they still share other properties with their higher order cousins. Consider that all groups (humans, animals, plants, and inanimate objects) are built with matter, thus share the properties of elements, molecules, and compounds. Which brings us back to Meghan.

Since Meghan sits on top of the Great Chain Metaphor, she possesses all of the properties of animals, vegetables, and minerals, and thus has the capacity to accept the transfer of any of their properties. She can have the heart of a lion, the flexibility of a fern, or the strength of a rock. However, since lions, ferns and rocks only contain a subset of Meghan’s properties, the ability to transfer her vast set of properties to them is limited.

In other words, metaphoric properties flow up the Great Chain, not down.


1. Lakoff, G., & Turner, M. (1989). More than cool reason: A field guide to poetic metaphor. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. Kindle Location: 3171 of 4619

Photo Credit: Frees, Harry Whittier, photographer. Planting Time. , ca. 1914. June 24. Photograph.

Storytellers Make Puzzles

The third in a series on metaphor

Jessica and Rob, cast members of the reality television series Below Deck Mediterranean, are attracted to one another. As they get closer, we learn something that Jessica doesn’t know–that Rob is in an open relationship with his girlfriend back home. When another cast member decides to drop that bombshell into a group conversation, we see Jess’s physical expression change dramatically as she retreats into her thoughts.

Rob notices and asks, “What puzzle are you trying to put together?”

I grabbed the remote control, hit the pause button, and repeated the question out loud. “What puzzle are you trying to put together?” I loved this question because it reveals the storyteller’s role–to create puzzles for their audiences to solve.

Storytelling works because it mimics our never ending cycle of rectifying new knowledge with our prior knowledge. When we see, hear, feel, taste or touch something that defies our understanding, we become fixated and thus mentally paralyzed. Just as Jessica turned inward to rectify her feelings for Rob with this new information, dichotomies force our minds into overdrive–shutting out the rest of the world until we can square up the two competing thoughts.

Good storytellers create puzzles to hold people’s attention. Great storytellers balance the level-of difficulty of solving those puzzles. A puzzle that’s too easy to solve bores an audience, while one too difficult makes them give up.

Which brings us to the focus of this series. If storytellers create puzzles that our brains are programmed to solve, then metaphors are super puzzle pieces that fill the gap between prior knowledge and new knowledge. While “Meghan is a rock” may at first blush seem like a puzzle, it resolves itself quickly as our brains transfer the properties of rocks to define her personality.

If stories are puzzles, metaphors are the super pieces.

Storytellers Make Stuff Up (and that’s OK)



Storytelling works because our brains are in a perpetual state of assessing whether or not something makes sense to us. If we see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something that defies our expectations, our brains churn until we somehow rectify the differences. The good news is that humans have an uncanny ability to fill this meaning-gap. The bad news is that they can fill it with ANYTHING–from pure logic to pure lunacy–because the meaning-gap is a breeding ground for things like superstitions and old wive’s tales.

Great storytellers anticipate and fill potential meaning-gaps before they form. For example, the movie Men in Black is based on a premise that aliens from outer space have not only been living among us secretly, but they’ve also been policed by a top-secret government organization. While this is a great premise to build a movie upon, it carries a potential flaw. Would an audience willingly believe that this huge secret could be kept from the public? To address this potential distraction, the script writers had to make something up.

Enter the memory eraser. With the ability to erase people’s memories, the government could then selectively remove an alien encounter from someone’s mind. Even though memory erasers don’t exist in real life, audiences were willing to suspend their beliefs for the duration of the movie.

But making stuff up isn’t limited to fiction. Storytellers in nonfiction communities like math and science make stuff up all the time. Consider the mathematical concept of the square root. To find the square root of 4, we ask ourselves, “What number, multiplied by itself, is 4?” The answer of course is 2, just as the square root of 9 is 3; square root of 16 is 4, and the square root of 10 is 3.162278…

So, what’s the square root of negative 4?  Wait. That’s impossible, right? Didn’t we learn in grade school that a negative times a negative is ALWAYS a positive? Well. yes and no. Although it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around the situation occurring in the physical world, some mathematical equations require us to calculate square roots of negative numbers.

So, how did the mathematicians rectify the logical inconsistency? They not only made something up, but didn’t even try to hide the fact by calling the fictional device an “imaginary number.” No joke. They invented the number “i,” which when multiplied by itself is negative one (-1). Therefore, if you’re ever asked, the square root if negative 4 is “2i.”

“C’mon, Ron,” you might be saying, “That’s nonsense. They just made something up that has no bearing in the real world.”

Think so? Without imaginary numbers, communications engineers could have never designed things like cellular telephone networks.

Do you have a complicated concept to convey–one that may create more confusion than clarity? If so, consider making something up, like a memory eraser or an imaginary number. What device can you invent that conveys meaning while simultaneously filling a potential meaning-gap?


Photo Credit: Bunny, Rupert, Artist. Vaudvilles and other things by Bunny. , None. [New york: isaac h. blanchard co., between 1900 and 1910] Photograph.

Character Development isn’t just for Fiction Writers


Novice storytellers spend more time focusing on story-structure than developing their characters for two reasons. First, they think that character-development is only for fiction writers. Second, it’s infinitely easier to partition a sequence of events into beginning, middle, and end than it is to uncover the motivations of people who participate in those events.

People are the wildcards of any story because two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. One person can react in such a way that’s totally consistent with their personality, while a third-party observer can see those reactions as odd. For example, if a child is presented with a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies, more likely than not, he or she will swipe a cookie or three. However, if the child does something unexpected, like cry, toss the plate on the floor, or pour barbecue sauce on them, the storyteller has now put a question in the listener’s mind. “Why did the child do that?”

Character development starts with studying everyday people. How do they react when they’re happy, sad, or under pressure? What are their belief systems? What gets them out of bed in the morning? The more you study, the more opportunity you have to find something unique enough to build a story around it.

Today, I wanted to share a little character development exercise. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to create the next Han Solo or Wonder Woman. Instead, I want you to think of the most influential people in your life. Perhaps it’s a family member, a sports legend, an author, or a leader.

Start by creating a table with three columns. Put the name of someone that you admire in the first column, followed by the role they played in your life in the second, and a lesson that you learned from them in the final column.

I’ve created the following one as an example.

  Name Role Lesson
1 Art Father Healthy skepticism produces a healthy outlook
2 Ralph Grandfather The best way to understand human nature is to study the actions of others
3 Flora Grandmother You only feel as old as the people you hang around with
4 Stan Grandfather Chess is life
5 Fred Uncle Creativity is seeing something in an object that others can’t
6 Richard Feynman Physicist If you can’t explain it to someone with a high school education, you don’t understand it yourself
7 Arthur Billionaire friend Good management is better than good luck
8 Mr. Reich Neighbor There are always two sides to every story
9 Mother Antonia Nun Don’t own too many things because they eventually own you
10 Wally Shirrah Astronaut Pushing the envelope is relative

Finally, think about that next story, presentation, or talk that you need to make. What do you need to accomplish with it? Go one-by-one through your table and see if there is something that you can use from the ten characters that you just listed.


Photo Credit: Characters in the new piece now poforming [sic] at the Theatre Royal Cotten Garden. England, 1820. London: Pub by John Marshall Junr. 24 Little St. Martins Lane, Nov. 6. Photograph.

Looking to Share a Big Idea? I’ve Got a Preposition for You


It’s called the Big Idea–the foundation of any best-selling book, blockbuster movie, or TED Talk. They’re frequently found in rare Ah-ha! moments, when clarity emerges unexpectedly from sustained periods of doubt and frustration. And while the euphoric rush from such flashes is intoxicating, the emotional high is short-lived once the discoverer contemplates the daunting task of explaining it to someone else.

Experienced authors, storytellers, and keynote speakers know that sharing big ideas is harder than discovering them. Why? Because big ideas are built upon personal life experiences, while the messages crafted to represent them must be filtered through a listener’s unique life experiences.

So, how do we convert complex concepts–some which may have taken us years to develop–into works that resonate with large numbers of people? The secret is found in the everyday words we use to describe the human condition: prepositions.

While it’s trendy in today’s world to highlight our differences, we find a universal core under all those layers: all 7.64 billion of us of were born and have evolved into the beings we are today. Although that statement may sound simple, consider that each one of us has impossibly derived the SAME big idea from our billions of experiences. “We are physical beings, bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skins, and experience the rest of the world as outside us. Each of us is a container, with a bounding surface and an in-out orientation onto other physical objects that are bounded by their surfaces. Thus, we also view them as containers with an inside and an outside.”1

This notion of inside and outside–or the state of actually being inside or outside–is an extraordinary complex idea. Having shorthand like in and out to describe our physical locations is a life imperative, which is probably why they’re the seventh and forty-third most common words used in the English language.2 We–and I mean all 7.64 billion of us–then bootstrap our understandings of new concepts from our deep connection to these two words.

For example, let’s take a look at the seemingly incongruous concept of being inside and outside simultaneously. We can be inside a warm coat, while outside of our home. This knowledge leads to another concept: transition–the fact that we can move back into our houses and out of our coats…and vice versa.

Everyday experiences teach us something new. We’ve learned that our environment affects us. The “simple” act of walking involves an constant struggle between our wills to remain upright and an invisible force that pulls us downward. Although children don’t fully understand the force of gravity–actually, the world’s best physicists still don’t–we accept it as an inescapable part of the human condition. As a result, when we fall down, we’re expected to get back up.

And so we add up and down to our list of tiny words used to describe life experiences. But up and down carry other connotations. Since the act of falling down is unpleasant and getting up is better, we associate up as good and down as bad. Thus, when we’re asked to describe another complex concept such as mood, we answer with seemingly nonsensical things like, “I’m feeling up today,” or “I’ve been down for a while.” Yet, no matter how illogical it may seem to describe emotional states using orientational words, we get it because we’ve all lived it.

The more experiences we have, the more concepts we need to express. For example, consider the impossibly complex concept of love. We can be in or out of it. Actually, we can fall into or out of it, suggesting that love is some sort of container with an inside and an outside. But that’s not exactly right because we can be in love and still hold love in our hearts…again…simultaneously! And just when we’re comfortable with love being a container, Pat Benatar tells us that love is a surface because Love is a Battlefield.

Love is such a vital yet complex concept, prior generations have written plays, books, songs, and proverbs to describe it.

In addition to being a container and a surface, love appears to be a force because Love makes the world go ’roundLove conquers all, and Love makes the impossible possible. This mysterious container/place/force also seems to have cognitive abilities because Love understands all languages. And while love is a force that can understand, it also has the ability to cloud our judgement as Love makes a good eye squint.

1 Corinthians 13: 4-7 describes love as a best friend who’s patient, kind, humble, respectful, forgiving, truthful, trusting, hopeful and persistent. With all of these definitions as a container/surface/force with friend-like cognitive abilities, it’s a wonder that we have any understanding of what love is at all.

But we do, because the longer we experience the human condition, the more opportunities we have to experience love’s infinite facets.

So, you wanna share a big idea? Start with the words used to describe our relationship to the human condition: prepositions. Prepositions will eventually lead to metaphors–the building blocks of all human understanding.

Do so by asking yourself a few questions about your big idea:

  1. How might I represent my big idea as an object, substance, container, surface, event, action, activity, or state?
  2. Does it have an inside, outside, top, or bottom that allows us to be in, out, on, off, over, or under it?
  3. Does it come with some things and/or without others?
  4. Is it stationary or does it move? If it moves, does it move toward or away?
  5. Are there any advantages or disadvantages to being by, at, or near it?
  6. How is it viewed? Do we look up, down, or sideways at it?
  7. Is it part of a process, where something happens before or after it?
  8. Is it the cause of something or the result of something else?
  9. Did it emerge from something or does something emerge from it?
  10. Is it adversarial? Perhaps it’s for something and against something else?

When trying to convey a big idea, forget the big words and apply a laser-like focus on the small ones that we as humans rely upon daily. Prepositions lead to metaphors and metaphors lead to universal meaning.



1. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphor We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 2003) Kindle e-book location 521/4362


Photo Credit: A. & C. Kaufmann, and Otto Erdmann. Proposal / original by Otto Erdmann ; chromo-lithographed and published by A. & C. Kaufmann, 366 Broadway, New York. , ca. 1873. New York: Published by A. & C. Kaufmann, 366 Broadway. Photograph.

Telos Precedes the Telling


Studying words from other languages is useful because they often capture a meaning that may not translate directly into one’s native tongue. Today’s example comes from the Greek word telos, which loosely translates to goal or end, but more accurately embodies the concept of the ultimate goal or the ultimate end.

According to Aristotle, telos resides in everything animal, vegetable, or mineral, and somehow, each one works in concert. While a rabbit’s telos may be to survive, it can only do so through a complementary collection of internal telos, like remaining safe, finding food, and reproducing. And although the telos of vegetables and minerals may not involve bunny-consciousness, they each play a role in feeding the rabbit’s hunger and forming a cave for the rabbit’s family to live in.

Let’s take a look at the role of telos in communicating. You’ve been tasked with presenting the results of your most recent project. So, what’s your telos? By the time you thank your audience for their time, what do you want them to walk away with? Is it to look at an issue from another perspective, change the way they’re doing things, or encourage them to double down on a controversial action because it’s the right thing to do?

Unfortunately, most people skip the telos step, preferring to jump right into the recitation of fact after tactical fact. Sadly, the telos of most presentations is to “get it out of the way” instead of conveying a subject’s deeper meaning.

For example, I recently found myself in the audience of a dreadful business presentation. When the presenter noticed that he’d completed his talk fifteen minutes ahead of his one-hour time slot, he said,  “Wow! I thought I had too many slides!” Obviously his telos wasn’t to communicate, but to create enough slides to fill the time allotted.

To be fair, telos-driven talks require work that most people don’t think that they have the time to invest. But in reality, every presentation is a pay-telos-now-or-pay-telos-later situation. The less telos pre-work presenters put into their presentations, the more audiences must asses their own telos by asking internal questions such as:

  • How does this information apply to me?
  • Why am I sitting here?
  • When is catering restocking that refreshments table?

Storytelling telos plays a fundamental role in my various interactions with people:

  • The telos of my lectures is to teach a certain message.
  • The telos of my opening stories is to bond with my audience.
  • The telos of a story told over a pint of beer is usually to entertain.
  • The telos of a Griddlecakes Radio story is to convey a life-lesson that a specific experience taught me.

Before you present, ask yourself, What’s my telos? Is it to add moisture to a dry subject, such as was my telos for writing The Proverb Effect? Is it to add personality to data, change a perspective, or to bond over a common experience?

Whichever way you choose, telos-driven communications strategies also contain a built-in quality control mechanism. When used, you’ll always be able to look back on a presentation and determine whether you were successful or not.


Image Credit: Metallic End Suspenders. , ca. 1874. Photograph.