Susan Boyle As Parable: Our Hunger For Mighty Metaphors

Countless many were enraptured last week by the sneaky vocals of Susan Boyle. Her talents, unveiled on "Britain's Got Talent," were unexpected by those who prejudged her for her appearance. Wait -- that was everyone. The doubters evidently were most of those present, both panel and audience.

However, watching the video that ignited the Internet and conversation everywhere, it was those who had the opportunity to see the astonishment moment by moment and either identify with or dissect this social study, whose reaction is most interesting. By the end of the week, after millions of views, it was not just about the sweet talent. This whole thing had become a parable. It's not that it necessarily signified or even portended anything particular to our business realities -- but we do love our analogies and metaphors, especially during times of increased uncertainty. I am convinced we needed Susan Boyle right now.



As people everywhere showered plaudits on this woman for her vocal gifts, the giddiness was clearly about more than Boyle's lovely and resonant performance. My inner balladeer was certainly touched. But, we must admit there is a certain glee -- a reflex that all might be righter than we thought -- when we see someone or something so judged by its cover, shine its truth through. Especially when the switcheroo is so extreme. And, when in addition to our shock, we get to actually watch others be shocked, from this vantage point in the digital age.

The lessons here were idealistic and almost romantic: books cannot be judged by their covers; hard work pays off; virtue wins. But, really, this was a more fantastic version of the metaphors we crave, craft and indulge every day.

Our Daily Metaphors

Even on a simpler day-to-day level, what gives with our inclination for metaphors? Examine any business culture, and you will see an abundance of them. The most prevalent are, of course, sport analogies. Management teams have their favored sports, positions, expressions -- all geared to foster team, illustrate lines of accountability, infuse fun, and convey the stakes. We are "game-changers" at our best, "hearing footsteps" when our instincts are in peril. I could go on.

Perhaps your particular environment favors artistic analogies, martial arts, nautical references, kimonos -- or even a more random proclivity for the metaphor. I've certainly worked for chiefs who knew how to wield the illuminating analogy like no one else. If the analogies fell flat, they at least provided comic relief at just the right moment. A friend of mine used to head to every time metaphors were unleashed, translate them into Portuguese and then back into English, and distribute them to the staff at-large.

Not to be over-thought, the well-placed metaphor can give you framework and orient you to the play in progress. It can light the path and clarify purpose. An apt metaphor is not always just an illustration. For those of you who have been with me for a little while -- you'll recall I broke my wrist fairly seriously over Christmas. It's been a long heal during some interesting times.

So, along with my aforementioned inner balladeer, I have an athlete. Thus I dig sports metaphors. They work for me. Over the past couple weeks, as a bit of a spiritual comeback, I completed a certification in U.S. sailing. Running a boat, luffing and sheeting the main, heading up through 40 mph puffs of wind -- all were incredible experiences. Adrenaline aside, let's just say the conditions were extremely well-timed.

Whether the catalyst is a parable, an illuminating metaphor or a signifying experience, it's that ability to engage at a gut level that is the great reminder. We can plot, plan, organize, run the show or play our part. But our visceral reactions to what moves us will always be as important as the intellectual ones. Especially when -- as with the Boyle parable -- something gets debunked.

8 comments about "Susan Boyle As Parable: Our Hunger For Mighty Metaphors ".
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  1. Catherine Ventura from @catherinventura, April 20, 2009 at 3:41 p.m.

    Great post, Kendall. I also make the point on my new blog post, "What Susan Boyle & Patrick Doyle of Domino's Have in Common" that she is a great metaphor for Social Media efforts as well: we had expectations, she surprised them, she represented herself transparently with presence and voice, and she engaged us. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts:

  2. Brian Olson from Video Professor, Inc, April 20, 2009 at 3:41 p.m.

    A glorious voice indeed, but the real story is the great marketing lesson Simon provided us with.

    She'd already been screened, they knew the voice hidden behind the plain brown wrapper. Simon is a marketer above all else.

    Set the expectation bar low, exceed it then let the "free media" machine do the rest of the work.

    A beautiful piece of work. A star is born, and money is to be made.

  3. Lisbeth Kramer from Identities, April 20, 2009 at 4:03 p.m.

    I think its a beautiful piece Kendall, once again...your crafted couture connection.........

  4. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, April 20, 2009 at 4:57 p.m.

    William Safire had a great article in the Times magazine, yesterday, reminding us of how we use baseball metaphors - timely ~

    Good as usual, Kendall - thanx for your efforts -

    Hey, Paula, looks many times gets you in the door, but once the mouth opens, we're equally equal or actually quite unequal - looks don't get you past anything ... once the mouth is open, whether singing or speaking ~

  5. Elmer Rich iii from Rich & Co., April 20, 2009 at 6:55 p.m.

    1 of the best perspectives on bathos of this media event..couple of comments:
    - Look at twitter for parables writ large, or small and reactions
    - We look to brain research for guidance on the function and "sense" of these stories - they actually save the brain energy...they may not be adaptive but....

    elmerrichiii -- on twitter

  6. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., April 20, 2009 at 9:24 p.m.

    I'm not sure "don't judge a book by its cover" _is_ the full lesson. First, the show-segment was certainly staged for maximum impact. Second, the stage has always been more forgiving of character appearance when bolstered by robust artistic chops: Patti LuPone herself -- who premiered that song 20-some-odd years ago -- is no more than interesting-looking; nor, for that matter, is Elaine Paige. Look to the classical arts, and looks become only marginally important -- nobody is surprised or put off by a gawky-looking flautist or rotund mezzo.

    Given all these facts, it's shocking -- kind of creepy, actually -- that we're so easily pulled into the judgement-space of crap that Simon Cowell and his engine reify, and so willing to validate it with our emotional responses. These are _third_ thoughts, of course -- my first impulse was to cry; my second to forward the URL to all my struggling artist friends.

    Where'd you take the certificate, Kendall? Up on City Island?

  7. Bruce McDermott from Atom Valley, April 21, 2009 at 9:36 a.m.

    I think what happened was simply the world was moved by her character. There's a lot of desperation out there, and something like this channels back into quality emotions that bring us back to center again. It was a unique demonstration of how hungry we are for healing.

    To see Simon momentarily gaze coldly at the camera and know his real emotions were being filmed, and then be totally incapable of holding his detachment was very entertaining. Her voice/personality soothed and captivated the most hardened of us.

  8. Forrest Wright, April 22, 2009 at 9:55 p.m.

    Great post about the power of metaphor. And you nailed it on the head when you identified what's really resonating with folks about Susan Boyle. I wonder which brands are going to be able to shine through their plain-Jane packaging to inspire us in the coming months.

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