The Empty Metaphor of Business Meetings

Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action.
— Lakoff and Johnsen (2003) Metaphors We Live By

The Chairperson does it; the Administrator does it; and all of the Participants do it. But let's do it right. Going forward, let's not converse in idiotic idioms but instead collaborate with meaningful metaphor.  

The term ‘metaphor’ has connotations of creative writing, flowery language and eloquent rhetoric. But in reality, we use metaphor to make sense of our working lives.  

Research shows that a metaphor occurs on average every 150 words in the workplace. In a typical business meeting - that is, the most transactional form of business discourse - metaphors occur every 50 words. Furthermore, Koester (2006) finds that the number of 'meeting metaphors' we use increases even more in problem-focused and decision-making discussion.

Which empty metaphors do we suffer from most? Studies show that one metaphor reigns supreme in business meetings. Personally, I hear this metaphor in every team meeting, every budget meeting and every strategy meeting. This metaphor is what linguists call an Orientational Metaphor – that is, it gives a concept a spatial orientation. The metaphor most used is Forward Movement is Progress. Here are a few examples of what we all hear on a day-to-day basis in the boardroom:

This is good practice moving forwards.

In the future, I think it’s something we need to work towards.

Looking ahead, we must press on.

From now on, we don't expect any layoffs going forward.

How many more examples of this metaphor have you heard or used recently? This metaphor has become such commonplace that most of us use it without realising.

Despite the commonplace of Forward Movement is Progress, this metaphor has been abused in business and is often empty of meaning. It has become a spacer to fill gaps between clichés and 'isms'. It has also become an attempt by some business professionals to gain an air of authority. Mark Seacombe, writing for The Guardian, describes the use of “going forward” more accurately; as a kind of burp at the end of a sentence.  The term undermines business conversation by patronising the audience and allowing the speaker to shirk commitment. 

What's the solution? First, let’s give metaphors the respect they deserve. Whether we are plunging into the technical aspects, looking to raise awareness or pinging an email across, we anchor our work-life thoughts and actions into metaphorical concepts. Second, let’s stop “going forward” and actually go forward – one infinite phrase at a time. Thirdly, let’s do it with deadlines, outputs and outcomes.

Going forward up the creek we are carried along by the current. Moving? Yes. Progressing? No. Let's not get caught up the creek without the proverbial paddle. Go forward and meet with meaningful metaphor.