The Great Paper Metaphor

By Heather Baldwin

When you’ve got a really important point to get across and you want your audience to remember it for a long time, use a paper metaphor. It’s a great memory hook because it’s entirely visual, says Joel Bauer, founder of Bauer & Associates ( and co-author of How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). The device is a diagram, sketch or cartoon that brings your main idea to life. You draw it in front of your audience and the more impromptu and rough it seems, the better. Artistic ability can actually work against you because the paper metaphor’s strength lies in the roughness of the sketch.

Rollin King, the man who first conceived the idea for Southwest Airlines, used one of the most famous paper metaphors to convince former CEO Herb Kelleher that they should start an airline. Sitting in a bar, King grabbed a cocktail napkin, drew a triangle and wrote the name of a major Texas city at each of the points. Instantly, Kelleher could visualize where and how the airline would operate. Southwest Airlines was born.

When Bauer, a professional corporate pitchman, is asked by a prospect how he’ll get trade show attendees to move into the prospect’s booth and leave their contact information, Bauer does much the same thing. He grabs a napkin or other available scrap of paper and draws a rough overhead schematic of the prospect’s booth. “I’ll stand here,” he tells the prospect. “Within 40 minutes, 250 people will be surrounding me in a parabolic arc.” He draws the arc. “When I feel the crowd’s interest is at its height, I will get them to line up here.” He circles the spot. When he’s finished, the napkin looks like a football play with Xs and Os and directional arrows. It’s a mess, says Bauer, but it makes sense. The prospect understands what will happen. Furthermore, Bauer has proven he knows his business and will stand behind it. Having that piece of paper reassures the prospect, he adds, “and makes her more likely to go forward in hiring me.”

To create your own paper metaphor, start by thinking about your most significant points. Then ask yourself how you might use a paper metaphor to make those points more compelling. Think about the word like. What is your point like? What else does it remind you of? Where else have you seen this kind of idea?

“The paper metaphor is a low-stress way to change the moment for the people you’re pitching,” says Bauer. “It only requires a pen and a piece of crumpled paper picked up from the floor. When you find the right metaphor, though, its value is out of all proportion to your efforts. The paper metaphor converts as it entertains.”