I'm looking for ways to discover what others might think when they hear or see a metaphor used in a speech. I tend to think a certain way. I have certain prejudices. I think we all do. If I use a metaphor, I'm pretty certain that it will invoke the response I intended to that segment of the audience of like-minded individuals.

What about other people? People who are not like-minded? How will they interpret the meaning behind the metaphor? I want to learn and understand how other people, "non like-minded people" might interpret that same metaphor.

Are there some sort of exercises I can do? Is there a standard set of questions out there I can use to figure out the different interpretations other people might have towards the same metaphor?

For example:

I'm a 60 year old male. If I say "I am a roll of toilet paper on the inside third." I know what 60+ year old people think about that metaphor. I'd like to understand what 20 somethings, or 30 somethings, or 40, and 50 somethings might think.


I ordered a book two days ago called "Lead With A Story" by Paul Smith and it came in the mail today. Chapter 24 is titled Metaphors and analogies. How ironical is that. Smith tells about using what is called the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET).

Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique

I also found some very interesting resources:


  • Welcome to Writing.SE Michael. Please check out our tour and help center and thanks for jumping in with a question.
    – Cyn
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 15:18
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    I'd say your question applies to every word you commit to paper. What's special about metaphors?
    – Cyn
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 15:19
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    Don't forget that metaphors are likely to be culturally dependent as well.
    – user
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 15:29
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    Based on the roll of paper comment, I'd say you can also not worry about it--that is a very 'voicey' metaphor and voice is a great attribute in writing. One guy in our group has this sort of quirky voice, and it works even if people don't get the meaning you intend. It becomes like listening in to a conversation from another part of the country.
    – SFWriter
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 15:39
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    Oh wait, are you giving a speech? That is a totally different type of writing. You added that tag after posting I see. Please put that information into the question. I'll change my answer to match.
    – Cyn
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 16:26

3 Answers 3


I wrote this before the poster indicated that this was a speech. My advice still applies, it just needs to be on a shorter timeline. Write what you want, show it to people you trust, revise, then show (or read) it to a more diverse group of listeners, especially those similar to your expected audience.

I'd say your question applies to every word you commit to paper. Nothing's special about metaphors. Like what do people from different walks of life think about the fact that a story has unmarried people living together romantically? What do they think about setting the story in Baja California, Mexico vs the south of France? What about slang words in the dialogue? Or accents. Or a million other things.

I don't think there's any answer aside from "ask them." This is true for any metaphor but also for other things.

Your best bet is to write what you want, how you want it, then show it to trusted people as you go. See what lands wrong. Then, when it's done, get beta readers and make sure you get a variety of ages, if age is your main concern.

Metaphors are easy to change, if you find that one is confusing your readers. Unlike changing a setting or character setup. And if the particular metaphor happens to be important to the plot or theme, then you'll explain it throughly in the text.

See what your pre-publication readers have to say. If they flag things, send those out to other people for comment. If you don't have friends that aren't your age, ask them to ask their kids and grandkids.

But don't worry about people not getting certain things, as long as they aren't central to your story. Young people tend to assume anything that an older person says that they don't understand is just due to old age and they politely let it pass (then make fun of it on social media, but that's besides the point).

A few odd sayings won't turn off readers. They'll care more about your story and how you tell it.


Hi Gunny and it's nice to meet you.

Standard exercises--I'd suggest a couple.

  1. Join a writing group that shares excerpts. Share your excerpts. You can ask for feedback specifically on your metaphors, if you like, asking what the group thought.

  2. Find a list (or other resource) of metaphors such as those linked to here. Read a metaphor, decide what you think it means, and then read the explanation of each metaphor.

But, as Cyn mentions in comments, every word you write can be interpreted by the person reading it.

Your writing exists first in your thoughts, then on paper, then in the reader's thoughts. What you put on the paper will not perfectly represent your thoughts, and what a reader thinks upon reading your piece will likewise be different again.

Also, over time, if you put your mind to it and listen to (or read) a range of language, your verbal range will expand and you'll start to pick up on how your words might come across. So I guess the third exercise is to write a lot, and pay attention to language and writing wherever you go, asking yourself how people are using words.

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    Thanks for the warm welcome DPT Commented May 25, 2019 at 15:38
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    I remember going through an exercise in creative writing where you take an abstract and give it concreteness. Being a Marine I chose "Integrity". Then I had to describe what does integrity look like, sound like, smell like, taste like, feel like. Commented May 25, 2019 at 15:47
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    @MichaelRiley-AKAGunny Aha. Another exercise is to find the areas in your writing that are vagaries and add a specific detail to make them concrete. "The town was dull" can become "The only diversion in town was the mini-golf course on the south side of town, the one that smelled like stale beer and cigarettes." Not sure how these sorts of exercises would apply to the idea of metaphor, but there may be similar exercises. Still, I think you need to ask for readers to tell you.
    – SFWriter
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 15:57

"I am a roll of toilet paper on the inside third."

I honestly have no idea what this means.

If it was in context, I would hazard to make a guess. If it was still cryptic in context, I would probably assume it is a colloquialism, some sort of military jargon, or an inside joke. As a reader, I wouldn't lose sleep over it.

I would probably expect this character (narrator?) to throw more of these wacky, semi-incomprehensible descriptions at me. If it happens 3 times it's a deliberate effect. I may not be sure of the exact effect it is suppose to have, but I know it has intent.

1 wacky metaphor and I may stumble over it. 2nd wacky metaphor, I will note if it is the voice of a single character or the voice of the author. The power of 3 means that I will probably accept it the third time – maybe find satisfaction in recognizing it as a pattern even if it still evokes no personal meaning.

If this is intended as a metaphor that somehow illuminates a narrative moment or a character turn, I might suggest using a less opaque phrase. Then again, if you can guide me to the realization where I can translate this odd phrase into an "ah-hah!" moment in the story, that would probably win me over.

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    You're a lot younger than Gunny and me :-D. It means that his life's time is running out and just hit the final third. Homestretch.
    – Cyn
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 16:09
  • Ahhh. That is the time when I do the funny walk to get more toilet paper from the cabinet – so, yeah. Kind of a different metaphor! HA!
    – wetcircuit
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 16:11
  • That's exactly the feedback I was looking for. I don't want writing.stackexchange.com to be a focus group. I was hoping to discover ways of uncovering what others might think through asking myself a series of questions. I am such a newb at this... Arrrgh! Commented May 25, 2019 at 16:15

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