When you talk with lay people, how do you describe what you do in a concise way that honors their wisdom and experiences? A metaphor—because it can convey immense and complex ideas in shorthand that most people can comprehend—is an effective tool to employ. Metaphors draw on shared knowledge to create a comparison that leads to greater understanding. Use the blueprint outlined below to generate and refine metaphors that you can use to describe your work in a relevant and relatable way.

1. Take it Down to the Bare Bones

What, precisely, do you want your listener(s) to know about your work? Boil down your work to a key phrase or sentence. If a wise grandmother asked you what you did, how would you reply? You’ll use this boil-down as the basis to begin thinking about appropriate metaphors.

2. Involve the Senses

List the characteristics of your work. Does it involve something you see? Hear? Does it involve a sense of touch? Now, ask yourself whether any of these characteristics can be used to connect to knowledge or experiences most adults have. For example, a researcher we interviewed is working on the problem of predicting and tracking solar storms. Researchers cannot initially see the environmental conditions that create these storms because the sun is too bright. The researcher translated this problem into something that nearly every person who has driven a car can understand.

“It’s much like the ‘blind spot’ that occurs when you are driving a car—when you look in your rear-view mirror, you just can’t see that section of road and whether there’s a car there or not. We have a design for a new instrument to solve the problem of tracking solar storms. It’s essentially like an extended mirror that you would put on your car in order to see your blind spot.”


3. Paint it in Broad Brush Strokes

In thinking about your work a bit more broadly, is there a parallel with what you are working toward that will resonate with most people? Can some aspect of your work be compared to a common experience? Another researcher we interviewed uses a metaphor to address a limitation of high-powered, sophisticated telescopes: They can only look deeply into one part of the sky at a time. He proposes a small army of smaller robotic telescopes patrol the sky to ensure we don’t miss any of the marvelous and fleeting moments that happen in our galaxy—much in the same way that cell phone cameras have allowed people to capture and record their daily lives.  Having more data—more “pictures”— will identify new areas of study for the powerful telescopes.

“In the past, there were only a few photographers because cameras were very expensive and very rare, and people were only able to capture a few events in the world even though amazing things were happening everywhere. Nowadays, we all have cameras in our pockets, and we’re capturing all this amazing stuff and rare events. My robotic telescope concept is like everyone having a cell phone camera. We’ll have all these ‘cameras’ available to capture what’s going on in the sky.

—Professor of Astronomy

4. Call on Emotions

When the promise of your work is realized, how will that make you and others feel? Think about how you might harness these feelings to create a metaphor that will galvanize lay people to support your work. In the following example, a professor and surgeon uses a metaphor to explain why a home is needed for her department in a thrilling and exciting way. The listener can’t help but feel drawn in by these inspiring emotions. Notice how her word choices extend the metaphor, making it more powerful.

“A home for [our new department] will allow us to get into escape velocity. We’ve launched in this amazing way by recruiting great doctors, building our educational and clinical programs, and getting basic infrastructure in place. We need help from our philanthropic partners to really get out into orbit.”

                        —Physician and Academic Leader

5. Lean on Your Development Partner

Enlist the help of your development partner in creating metaphors to describe your work. They will be able to help you refine your choices into ones that will resonate with donors and potential donors. Practice with them will to ensure that your metaphor rolls naturally off your tongue. Together, you’ll be able to identify additional language to strengthen the metaphor.

Using a metaphor is one of the most powerful tools you have in helping lay people understand your work. Relating your work to something that ordinary folks can understand or have experience can be the first step toward achieving funding success.


Harness the power of philanthropy by learning how to communicate more effectively with donors and potential donors. Advancement Resources’ training—designed especially for academic leaders—will walk you through the steps to create an Opportunity Story that will inspire others to support your important work.

Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders


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