When the Government announced its plans to give 30 million people a covid booster jab to prevent another wave of the virus, we didn’t expect to hear a comparison to a wet and windy night on the side of the mountain.
But that is exactly what we got.
And not only did it work, but it served as another example of the power of metaphors in media interviews – something we often highlight during our media training.
It came as Jonathan Van-Tam, no stranger to a metaphor, explained why it made sense to give booster jabs early rather than wait for more evidence on post-vaccination immunity.
“I don’t know if many of you are used to crawling into small tents on mountainsides,” the deputy chief medical officer told a Number 10 briefing on Tuesday.
“But if you know a storm’s coming up in the night, it’s better to put some extra guy ropes on there and then, than it is to wait until it’s the middle of the night, it’s howling with wind and rain, and you’ve then got to get out your tent and make your tent secure and by the time you crawl back in you’re soaking wet.”
That is a far more memorable way of saying ‘it is better to be pre-emptive and prepare for the worst’.
And it was picked up by the media, being quoted in most reports and used in news outlet social media posts.
'I don't know if many of you are used to crawling into small tents on mountain sides...'— ITV News Politics (@ITVNewsPolitics) September 14, 2021
Another analogy from Professor Jonathan Van-Tam as he explains why Covid booster jabs will be important https://t.co/zAA6lWswp6 pic.twitter.com/X1XVI8zNyn
"It's better to put some extra guy ropes on - there and then - than to wait until it’s the middle of the night to make your tent secure"— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) September 14, 2021
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam says it's better to be pre-emptive and prepare for the worsthttps://t.co/K8nkzE1WoR pic.twitter.com/nkXi24IJ6a
Of course, we should not be surprised by the source of this latest metaphor example.
Prof Van-Tam has built a reputation during the pandemic of being the Government’s most effective communicator – although, arguably, this has not been a particularly strong field at times.
And his use of metaphors has turned him into something of a cult hero.
Among his back catalogue was the comparison between the positive test results for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine trials with scoring in a penalty shoot-up.
“So, this is like getting to the end of the play-off final, it’s gone to penalties, the first player goes up and scores a goal,” he said.
“You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is, it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”
And he memorably compared the Pfizer vaccine to yoghurt when discussing its complicated storage arrangements.
He said: “This is a complex product. It's not a yoghurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in multiple times."
He also previously compared the race to beat covid to the Grand National, saying: “The vaccine effects are going to take three months until we see them properly, and until then no one can relax.
“We are probably in the last few furlongs of this race – like in the Grand National. We just have a couple more fences. We have just got to stick with it.”
Prof Van-Tam is not the only spokesperson to like a metaphor.
Across the Atlantic, Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has regularly compared the lifting of coronavirus restrictions across the US to a light switch.
He said: “It is not going to be a light switch where the switch goes back on. It depends on where you are in the country.”
At the start of the pandemic, he also compared his strategy to ice hockey – a hugely popular sport in America. He said: “You skate not to where the puck is, but to where the puck is going to be.”
Back on this side of the pond, Boris Johnson is also keen on metaphors, with plenty of war and fight comparison in his description of covid.
But these have often fallen flat in comparison to the more vivid and relatable descriptions used by Prof Van-Tam.
But, to stay with Mr Johnson’s theme, metaphors are a crucial part of a spokesperson’s armoury.
They can help people grasp ideas and can make the complex understandable by comparing them to everyday situations.
They can help make messages memorable, create soundbites that will be aired on radio and television, and provide quotes print journalists will want to use.
And they can persuade and stir people into action.
In the case of Prof Van-Tam, his more creative metaphors have helped endear him to the audience and raise a smile – not easy given the often-grim subject matter.
Another advantage is they can help spokespeople respond to questions that are more complex than the audience might think.
So, should you use them? Yes, definitely. But with a few conditions.
On our media training courses, we stress that metaphors should compare to everyday situations, experiences and things people can relate to and picture.
If we look back at Prof Van-Tam’s metaphors, he typically references everyday things like trains, planes, football and food.
Jonathan Van Tam's analogies are top class!— 𝓓𝓪𝓷𝓲 (@Feemy82) November 9, 2020
His train analogy is proper was sick! 😂👌🏼👍🏼👏🏼
Love it! Prof Van Tam is one helluva story teller 😁#coronavirus #COVID19 #vaccine #DowningStreetBriefing pic.twitter.com/ZbfA9vL5BJ
Yes, not all of us will have camped on the side of a mountain. But we can build a picture in our minds of what it looks like and why it would be better to prepare the tent for a possible storm rather than trying to secure it in the middle of one.
The other vital point about metaphors is that, like that tent on the mountain, they need some preparation.
Just as you would with any examples and stats you plan to deliver, also think about any metaphors or analogies you intend to use. And then consider whether people will understand them and whether they are suitable.
Even Prof Van-Tam’s natural and spontaneous-sounding metaphors are tested before they are used, with his family serving as a sounding board for his imaginative and compelling descriptions.
"I use my family," he once said about testing his metaphors. "Mrs V T is very good at listening to that stuff.”
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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