Metaphor-Elicitation Technique

Posted by Shawn Callahan - August 27, 2006
Filed in Business storytelling

I’m reading Gerald Zaltman’s How Customers Think. I started from the back because I was attracted to the chapters on story, metaphor and memory. But this morning I starting reading about Zaltman’s metaphor-elicitation technique (MET). It reminded me of Repertory Grid in that it’s an interview technique which uses one idea, or trigger, to probe for related ideas. Here is a cut down version of how Zaltman describes the process (p. 102–103).

Girls-looking-at-hatThe process can start with an image (or it could be a movie clip, a story, a product) that has some level of ambiguity or can be read in multiple ways (which probably means just about any image you like). I use this one in our anecdote circle training because when I ask ‘What’s happening in this picture?’ the answers are always in the form of a story.

Using the MET, the interviewer would ask questions Zaltman calls an Image Description Probe, such as:

Can you describe this image for me? What do you see here?

I see two girls looking at a hat. One is really interested in the contents while the other has her hands behind her back. The girl in the light green dress is bending over with her hands together. The hat seems to have some critters in it—perhaps rats.

Once the interviewee has described the picture and immersed themselves in the image the interviewer asks the introductory probe:

And how does this image relate to your thoughts and feelings about being a consultant within this corporation?

The hat and its contents reminds me of the constant need to produce results and the light green girl is acting like the many senior managers in the organisation who look disdainfully at the output of all our hard work. You can see that the dark green girl is not happy about the situation and might be willing light green girl to put her hands into the hat full of rats in the hope she will be bitten.

Could you tell me more about the hat?

As consultants we are instructed to generate the best hats possible and we are definitely proud of our work yet we tend to be given ridiculous timelines and never enough resources to do the job properly. Mind you when a hat is created all our peers gather and congratulate the hat makers on their work. It’s invariably a team effort.

More open questions follow probing various aspects of the metaphor that has been created by the interviewee in relation to the picture you have shown.

Zaltman encourages the interviewer to probe rather than prompt. Probes “enable participants to respond in multiple, often unexpected, ways, while [prompting] prohibits discovery by focusing the participant’s attention on the interviewer’s assumptions and hypotheses.” (p. 108)

We take a similar line when helping people craft anecdote-eliciting questions and when running anecdote circles. The facilitators role is to probe with open questions and then let the participants help one another remember stories through association. The difference with anecdote circles is that it is done in a group and it’s designed to collect stories.

Zaltman, G. (2003). How Customers Think: Essential Insights Into the Mind of the Market. Boston, Harvard Business School Press.

About Shawn Callahan
Shawn is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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