The Power Of Metaphors In Pitching New Ideas

Can you imagine pitching Twitter before the first tweet had ever been sent? Didn't think so—but putting a powerful metaphor behind your idea would greatly increase your chance of success.

I’m hovering over the Arizona desert, on my way to Los Angeles, so it’s appropriate that I’m thinking about movie pitches: a writer at the edge of his seat, passionately gesturing hands in the air, trying to convince a producer to put money behind his vision. I have no TV show to pitch, not this week at least, but it occurs to me, aren’t innovators always pitching to investors, customers, employees? They are pitching suppliers to give them good terms and distributors to push their products.

Now there are different kinds of pitches. Sequels and spin-offs are straightforward: “I built this marketplace for toilet bowl cleaners, now I want to do the same thing for toilet paper holders.” But to pitch something entirely new requires a different approach. How do you sell Twitter before a “tweet”? It is this kind of pitch you want to master if you are going to create something truly innovative.

Consider Joss & Main, a shopping site that in two years has grown from zero to 3 million users, tracking at $100 million in annualized income. I got a chance to talk to the company’s cofounder and chief curator, Mitra Morgan, about how she did it.

Joss & Main is not really a shopping site; they run flash sales, doing for home goods what Gilt does for fashion apparel. They are not exactly that either, because they operate like a magazine, with writers and curators developing new themes (like “Black and White”), headlines, and content (as you might find in a travel journal) every day.

Register for the site and you start receiving emails informing you of shopping events. Each event starts at 11 a.m. and lasts 72 hours. At any given time, the company runs six to eight events.

“It’s sort of like live TV. [Each event] has to be presented in editorial format, has to be entertaining, inspiring. You use evocative copy, all the way down to the product description,” Mitra explained.

To execute an idea like this, a new category of business, requires you to enroll several stakeholders into something they have never seen before. Mitra had to enroll Niraj Shah, CEO of Wayfair, the massive home goods online retailer I covered a few months ago. Mitra was a former management consultant who went on to run her own company producing children’s wear. When she purchased a new home and took on trying to furnish it, “I felt overwhelmed,” she says. She also noticed, “I was buying most of my stuff online,” so she figured there must be an opportunity to help others like her. She convinced Wayfair to back her.

At first she primarily sold Wayfair products. But after getting Joss & Main going, she was able to enroll suppliers directly, particularly home goods suppliers who were not yet selling online and who wanted a low-commitment way to test how their products would do online. She then enrolled guest curators to create Joss & Main’s events.

“Today we have three guest curators per week. Everything from interior designers published in Architectural Digest to bloggers,” Mitra explained. Of course through all of this, Mitra is enrolling users, 3 million and counting. Her snowball is growing.

To build something significant, you need to get people in your door. That requires they understand what you are building. This is easy when you are copying and repeating something that already exists. For example, Mitra could have decided to build the Gilt of home goods.

But copying others rarely leads to greatness. To get people to support something new, you need a “metaphor lure.” These metaphors get people in your door by creating familiarity, by fitting your idea into a category your target already knows. This “metaphor lure” then opens up, showing people they entered something much larger.

When Apple first marketed the iPad, its metaphor was something like “a digital magazine reader.” The lure got people to try. But after a few swipes, they realized the iPad was much, much more. Gatorade did this to create the sports drink, and Red Bull to create the energy drink category.

To create something really new, develop a “metaphor lure.” Ask yourself:

  1. What metaphor will enable your key stakeholders to make your innovation seem familiar? I, for example, am toying with the idea of framing my consulting and training offering as a stack of software.
  2. How do you get them through your door? I do this by getting clients to try my training workshop or consulting service.
  3. What is the cathedral you want them to then realize they have entered? After crossing your threshold, you want the cathedral to unfold—the tapestries, staircases, hidden passageways. Once my client tries my training program or consulting offering, my aim is to have them see the potential of enabling all their people to think and act like outthinkers through a comprehensive stack of training, consulting, support, and tools.
Here are some useful sources to help you craft your “metaphor lure”:

[Image: Flickr user Stu Mayhew]

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3 Comments

  • Anne Miller

    Readers may also want to check out The Tall Lady with the Iceberg: the power of metaphors to sell, persuade, & explain anythings to anyone. It is written specifically for business people who want to learn how to master  the art of metaphor in all their communications.

  • Anne Miller

    I couldn't agree more with you about the unique power of metaphor to sell, persuade, & explain anything to anyone, particularly when presenting something new. I would go further and say that in a world of too much information, too many choices, and too little attention, the best communicators are the ones who use metaphors and analogies strategically to make their points. 

  • Cathy Carmody

    Kaihan, the inclusion of the different types of resources makes this a particularly useful post. I suggest those who want to improve their persuasion skills use metaphors when pitching ideas that are even "small" ones- to become practiced at it.