Major, Minor keys

By Ewan Pearson

One of the funny things about doing this for a long time is that we never stop learning. In music, composers have a simple choice to make at the outset: to use a major key or a minor key. Each can create powerful music, but in quite different ways. It turns out that metaphors can do much the same in the way we communicate.

One of the ‘scales to fall from our eyes’ this year whilst developing our Content Analysis tool has been the way in which metaphors are used in two quite different levels in a piece of communication, whether it be written or spoken.

We are huge fans of metaphors and other rhetorical tools that help communication, whether spoken or written, to be more easily understood, more memorable and more persuasive. And quote frankly, more fun to hear or read too.

There are many metaphors to choose from – and just to reinforce our advice here, we always prefer fresh new ones – and it turns out from looking at this subject more closely recently, that there are two levels at which these are and should be used within the structure of a piece of communication. We’ll call these levels ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’ metaphors.

First, define the word ‘metaphor’

There are quite a few definitions to choose from, but here is the one we like most:

“An implied analogy or comparison between two unlike things that actually have something important in common.”

So what are these two types of metaphor?

Major Metaphors

A major metaphor is one that is woven into and all through the fabric of the content, and re-used as an echo. It should be the sole metaphor, and its use is repeated several times creating a structure that can be drawn as a ladder, as shown above right.

A Major metaphor describes a parallel path that the listener or reader can follow, which through its clarity and enjoyment achieved the memorability and persuasiveness goals.

GPB's Metaphorical Ladder

GPB’s Metaphorical Ladder

Here’s a example of a Major Metaphor:
The Head of Department at one of our fund management clients was presenting on his area of the business, Quantitative Analysis (QA), in preparation for a pitch to a client. When he finished presenting, I confessed that I could not understand what he did at all well, and therefore the value his department provided the firm. That was a bit disappointing to both of us!

So I asked him to help think of a metaphor that describes what they do. We came up with the parallel that QA is like piloting a ‘plane across the Atlantic from London to Boston: His team could measure key things like the position, course, speed, distance, temperature and humidity, the weather around and away from the plane, so show the pilot – using a sophisticated dashboard of displayed key metrics – whether the current course was the best, or whether to change course.

The key point being to get the passengers to Boston safely.

The connections to the QA topics were then pretty easy: the opening was to state the metaphor (“It’s a bit like providing the data for the dashboard of a plane”), the fund measurements were on things like risk, return, style bias, and tracking error.


The key point related to the investors, who wanted to derive a certain performance (rate of return), without too much risk (flying through storms), or too much deviation from a benchmark (position).
We were able to make several other ladder connections and for the first time I fully understood the value his team provides.

Minor Metaphors

A Minor metaphor by contrast helps to illustrate one particular point made, but does not bear repeating as that can become annoying, and anyway it’s job has been done.

Here’s an example: I was working recently with the CEO of a Private Equity (PE) firm, preparing to give his annual keynote address to his firm’s investors (General Partners, GPs). He used several metaphors, once each for a particular point.

“A childlike enthusiasm for birthdays…a proper party to celebrate” used to link to how he is happy that the firm is this year having a significant birthday as an independent business;

“GPs will need to internalise the lessons of last 10 years to fully fulfil the promise
in reference to the changing nature of PE;

“I have ordered my keys to success into 4 buckets” as a way to refer to the 4 topics he then covered.

And this use of new and different minor metaphors just carried on to the end:

“GPs have embraced growth”
”…under the umbrella of these global giants”
“Assumes a real spike in one or more dimensions”
“…a forensic examination of our own
track record.”
“…wandering through forest of geographically-driven opportunities.”
“…two essential ingredients.”
“to fine-tune pricing.”
“I have had a ring side seat at …”
“….will have harnessed potent mix“
“Without…these two objectives are uncomfortable bedfellows.”
“…a tipping point is approaching.”

And then finally, he moved neatly back to his opening metaphor: “These comments may not be those of your typical birthday party but..”

This use of several different metaphors would conventionally be frowned upon as an example of “Mixaphors”, the use of mixed metaphors, whose main problem is confusion for the listeners/readers.

But it actually worked really well in this case, and in a similar but different way to the use of a Major Metaphor, achieved the style goals of making the presentation easier to understand and much more enjoyable.

There is a strong analogy here with the Major and Minor keys in music: both types are equally valuable to a composer, but are used differently, to equally powerful end effect.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

First, realise how vital the good use of rhetoric (such as the use of metaphors) is.

Second, have a think about how you use (or don’t use) rhetorical devices such as metaphors, in your own spoken and written communications.

Third, in terms of metaphors specifically, either go for one major one that you
re-use as an echo several times, without switching to other metaphors, or use a selection of new, easy and interesting metaphors, each one simply helping to explain a particular idea.

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