Proverb Construction Step #2: The Frame



All written works consist of form and function. Since form is more complicated than function (see last post), we’ll need to spread our discussion about it across a few posts.

Proverbial form is split into two major pieces: frames (the structure by which we build our proverbs) and finishes (the techniques used to gussy ’em up). Today we cover frames.

Frames come in four categories: Metaphor/Definition, Comparison, Conditional, and Special

1. Metaphor/Definition

Metaphor is the building block of all proverbs, thus it deserves its own frame category. Proverbs built upon metaphor/definition frames include:

  • time is money
  • ignorance is bliss
  • a diamond is forever

2. Comparisons

Comparison frames juxtapose certain roles, events, and influences to make a point. They frequently contain qualifying terms such as better, best and worse:

  • It’s better to have loved and lost than have to have never loved at all
  • Old friends and old wine are best
  • False friends are worse than open enemies

3. Conditionals

Conditional frames establish situational advice. They typically contain setup words like if and when:

  • If the shoe fits, wear it
  • If you lose your temper, don’t look for it
  • When EF Hutton speaks, people listen

4. Special Frames

And lastly, a subset of frames exists that may contain metaphor/definition, comparison, or conditional elements, but do so uniquely. There are two special frame subcategories: derivatives and implied.

4a. Derivative (Special)

Derivative proverbs are built upon well-established sayings and cultural references, thus they come spring-loaded with memorability. Many carry humor which lowers the barrier to listener adoption and increases the likelihood that the proverb will be repeated. My favorite derivative proverb results from the combination of two other proverbs:

A rolling stone gathers no moss + open mouth insert foot =  a closed mouth gathers no foot

My storytelling buddy Park Howell used an iconic song as a derivative frame to form:

a spoonful of story helps the data go down

(Can’t ya just hear Julie Andrews singing it?)

4b. Implied (Special)

Finally, while all proverbs are based in metaphor and formed upon frames, sometimes those frames get eliminated during the editing process. For example, let’s take the proverb no pain no gain. Note the absence of telltales for comparisons (better/best/worse) nor conditionals (if/then/when). Does this mean that the proverb has no frame?

We’ll dive deeper into this topic when we talk about finishes, but proverb creators start with a big idea, determine a function and a frame, and then iterate through an editing cycle to make the proverb more memorable and repeatable. Sometimes this process eliminates telltales (better/best/worse/if/then/when) while simultaneously leaving behind cognitive references to them.

For example, perhaps the first incarnation of no pain, no gain read: If you want to gain, you must experience pain before some sharp copy editor chopped those nine words to four. And although the proverb lost its conditional telltale (if), cognitive frame references remain in the minds of both speaker and listener. The speaker implies the conditional frame while the listener infers it.

Now it’s your turn. Examine your favorite proverbs. Can you determine their functions and frames? The better you are at deconstructing existing proverbs, the better you’ll be with creating your own.


If you want to learn more about proverbs, grab a copy of The Proverb Effect on


Photo Credit: Extension of library of Harvard College, Iron details. Ware and Van Brunt architects / Wm. C. Richardson, del. Cambridge Massachusetts, 1878. Boston: Heliotype Printing Co. Photograph.

Creating Proverbs: The Function


Last post, I described the StoryHow™ PSP method of building a talk. The technique has speakers open with a proverb, offer evidence via a story, and finally close with that proverb. While the same proverb is used to bookend the story, its purpose is different. The first instance acts as a premise and the second as a conclusion. In this post, I describe the first of a three part process for creating your own proverbs.

Whether you’re sharing an opinion, giving advice, or just leaving your audience with something to chew on, you first must make a choice. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you need your message to do? In the language of proverbs, you need to determine your function.

Proverb functions come in three forms: definitions, predictions, or prescriptions:

  • Definitions describe one thing in terms of another. They typically contain words like is, are and like
  • Predictions illustrate a cause and effect relationship to show how one event leads to another
  • Prescriptions offer ways to either solve or prevent a problem

I’ve found that the best business taglines are proverbish, so let’s use a few to learn about the differences.





So, now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite business slogan? Can you determine it uses definition, prediction, or prescription?

If you want to learn more about proverbs, grab a copy of The Proverb Effect on




Photo Credit: Clarence H. White School Of Photography, Steiner, Ralph, photographer. Typewriter Keys. , 1921. , Printed 1945. Photograph.

Why this Storyteller Wrote a Book about Proverbs

According to a 2016 study by Pew Research, 20% of Americans feel overwhelmed by the deluge of information that they face every day. A 2015 Microsoft® study revealed a side effect to this information overload—that the average human attention span has dropped from 12 to 8 seconds, making it shorter than that of a goldfish. And the problem is getting worse as our social networks ping us incessantly, Russian bots spread fake news, and machine learning gobbles up this content to create even more.

The problem? We are meaning-seeking beings paddling rudderless in a sea of non-contextualized information. We yearn to understand and to be understood. And yet, without an effective way to do so, we make snap judgments, adopt extreme political views, and ultimately pull our communities apart when we should be pulling them together. If we’re to extricate ourselves from this funk, we need less information and more meaning.

But how can we convey our thoughts succinctly? How can we fill this meaning-gap without contributing to the information overload problem? I began finding answers in a short, narrative story-form that humans have used since the invention of language: the proverb.

Proverbs are tiny linguistic devices that convey more meaning than the words used to construct them. They’re policies for making better life decisions, passed from the experienced to the inexperienced. The simplicity of their presentation lies in stark contrast to the complexity of their function. Proverbs are both objective and subjective and contain both premise and conclusion. They are accepted generally yet applied specifically. And since their power of persuasion comes from both logic and emotion, they wrap their inductive and deductive reasoning in literary devices such as symbolism, alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm.

I’ve learned much about these little powerhouses during my two years of collecting and studying them. For example, after running fifteen-hundred English proverbs through linguistic analyses, I found that proverbs are not only short (all 1,500 contain less than 129 characters), but they are also easy to read (4.75 grade reading level). In other words, proverbs are both tweetable and…wait for it…you don’t need to be smarter than a fifth-grader to understand them. Their dual ability to help proverb-speaker’s teach and proverb-listener’s learn is a testament to their immense power. And most importantly, proverbs are universally-human, as they’re found throughout history, across all languages, nationalities, cultures, and creeds. The Proverb Effect is the first book to define a simple and repeatable process to convey one’s deep meaning through self-created proverbs.

Wisdom is gained through experience and shared through proverbs.


Introducing The Proverb Effect


Three years ago, I published a deck of playing cards that helps people apply storytelling to their business communications. The StoryHow™ PitchDeck is now being used by business storytellers in 24 countries. Today, I’m announcing a new addition to the StoryHow™ family of products–a book that teaches a deceptively-simple technique that great communicators have used since the invention of language. Some call them idioms or wise old sayings, but we’ll call them proverbs, like:

  • Slow and steady wins the race (Aesop, ~550 BC)
  • Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today (Chaucer, late 1300s)
  • Stupid is as stupid does (Gump, 1994)

Proverbs are the ultimate long-stories short. They’re universally human, and thus effective across time, culture, and language. And while it’s tempting to dismiss them as droll or trite, doing so just underestimates the powerful roles they play in both human understanding and teaching. The Proverb Effect is the first book to define a repeatable process for conveying deep meaning through self-created proverbs.

I wrote The Proverb Effect to help you become a better writer, speaker, and teacher. Read it to learn:

  • Why proverbs reign supreme over other message types
  • What makes proverbs the triple-threat of communications: memorable, repeatable and most importantly, persuasive.
  • A step-by-step methodology to apply the most powerful communications device in human history

Lastly, in addition to teaching people how to tell stories, I’m also a working storyteller. So, I wrote The Proverb Effect as a business fable. It’s the story of Samantha Kim, a young project manager whose disastrous presentation sets her on a journey to become a better communicator. She meets Tina, who teaches her how to convey deep meaning through studying everyday proverbs. When Sam’s company loses its largest client, the resulting financial crisis threatens her firm’s very existence. Can Sam learn enough from Tina to win back the client, save her company, and finally redeem herself from the disastrous presentation? The Proverb Effect has the answers.

I’m very excited about sharing this new project with you. Stay tuned for more information as we get closer to the release date.