Re: Metaphor and Mental Models

Chas. A. Barclay (
Wed, 28 Dec 1994 10:43:13 -1000

Didn't your high school english teachers instruct you not to write in
metaphors for instructional and technical material?

I had a phenomenal high school english teacher that had the poor
fortune of having a class of gifted children--not one of us with an IQ
less than 135. Despite the complaining from youngsters that would all
exceed his stature in life he taught us focus. He taught that what
reads best is written directly. Its written in active voice, without
hyperbole, redundancy, latent modifiers, nor with obvious metaphor.
Accomplished writing leads the reader directly to the purpose and
premises of the reports, with supporting evidence and conclusions.

This class had tremendous impact on my career: it was demanding,
frustrating, discipline creating, even hateful at times, and years
later--insightful. Yes, we read fiction at the same time we
(Hawthorne's letter, Hemmingway's fish, Steinbeck's grapes, etc)
used those materials as the basis for our research in writing
direct & concise reports. Metaphor, hyperbole, exaggerrations, and
writing what we said rather than what was meant, were marked and then
corrected by us before we could go on.

Metaphor is fine for literature, even Eli Goldratt's The Goal does a
fine job in the TQ arena, but for business & technical writing
metaphors confuse issues and delay acceptance of the concepts.
Adjectives and adverbs--modifying descriptors--also delay the
understanding. IN a world looking for efficiency and economy in
one's purpose there is no room for metaphor in technical material.

The metaphor becomes dangerous to any understanding when used in
place of rational explanation. The Northbound Train is a fine
example, we have people all over our school now talking about getting
off the train if you don't want to go North. What the ^%$%$# does
that mean? Nothing. Use the Red Bead experiment incorrectly or to
introduce the concepts of variation and you run the risk of audience
members and participants remembering the beads and not the concepts.

My advice: speak clearly, avoid the hyperbole unless there's a need
for irony to break through commonly held but inaccurate views,
likewise use reductio absurdem sparingly. Ditto's with metaphors.
Mental modles are better described and graphed than descripted by
querulous like-situations.

We have become a community that relies too much on simplified
explanations through easy-to-use-modles, instant pudding, acronyms,
microwavable recipes for success and one-minute fixes in place of
core understanding, discipline, practice and experimentation.

See the difference?

Mele Kalikimaka,

Charles Barclay 2404 Maile Way
Dept. of Mgmt & Ind Relations Honolulu, HI 96822
University of Hawaii Fax: 808 956-2774 Phone: 808 956-8545