Mark Robert Halper

Nine out of 10 business problems are the result of miscommunication. To counter this, we strive to live by the following theme: “It is our obligation to communicate, not others’ responsibility to understand.”

The key to this notion is ownership. If the person trying to communicate is always accountable for the success or failure of the understanding of the person receiving the message, then the likelihood of misunderstandings is reduced. As with so many things, though, clear, effective communication is difficult to master. Here are some insights that will help you become a better student of good communication techniques.

Metaphor Magic

I once heard a speaker at a conference say, “ If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.” When it comes to communicating with your clients and team, using metaphors can be extremely helpful.

Many times, for example, your clients might not understand the differences between one remodeler and another. Or they might find it difficult to understand your price as it compares to another business’s price. Instead of presenting more and more detail to clients who still don’t get it, try using a metaphor.

For instance, you might explain that picking a remodeler is like choosing a car. All cars have four wheels, windshield wipers, and a radio, and most can reach a speed of 80 miles per hour. Did I just describe a $20,000 Hyundai or a $60,000 BMW? This comparison will enable anyone who understands the differences among various car makes and models to immediately appreciate the differences between one remodeling company and another.

Of course, you should make sure you pick a metaphor or analogy that makes sense to your audience. You can certainly improvise, but it doesn’t hurt to work out a few metaphors in advance, then choose the one that you think will resonate in a given situation.

When clients question why remodeling projects cost so much or take so long, one of my favorite techniques is to compare new construction with remodeling. Instead of enumerating a lists of reasons, I say something like, “Remodeling is like having your suit tailored while you are still wearing it.” This immediately communicates to clients the custom nature and logistical challenges of the remodeling process.

There are also ways to use metaphors to help communicate with your team and get them aligned. A fun exercise is to ask a group of your sales or production staff to write down the name of a car that, if your company was an automobile, would best represent your company. The results can be surprising. You may think of your company as a BMW, but some of your team may think of the business as a Buick. This exercise (which can expand beyond cars and use any brand category) not only gives you a basis for understanding, it also provides a way for your team to become more masterful communicators. As you delve further into the reasons for their responses, you will find that many interesting attributes — such as reliability or attention to design details — will pop out. You will find that this technique can be a good way to get at subjects that are difficult to discuss.

Sports analogies and metaphors can also be helpful for relaying certain ideas. The effectiveness can depend a lot on your audience. If they are thoroughly familiar with a particular sport, then a sports analogy can provide shortcuts to very clear communication. But the opposite is also true — an audience that is unfamiliar with a sport may be more bewildered than ever by your analogy. If you’re unsure, stick to more general parallels — comparing a sprint to a marathon, for example, or a team sport to a solo sport. But be careful not to overdo it; always using the same analogy or using it too often can become annoying.

Metaphorical language is a wonderful thing, and it becomes magical when it serves to help someone understand what you are trying so hard to convey.

—Mark Richardson, co-chairman of Case Design/Remodel, recently accepted a one-year appointment to Affiliate in Housing Studies at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.; 301.229.9580.