“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.”
— Daniel Pink, author, A Whole New Mind

Master of metaphor

PNNL science writer shows how to communicate complex concepts

When Pacific Northwest National Laboratory science writer Tom Rickey wrote a release about the lab’s work “Making dams safer for fish around the world,” he didn’t get lost in the scientific gobbledygook. Instead, he wrote:

Master of metaphor - fish tale

Fish tale When these Chinook salmon pass through the turbulent waters near a dam, the resulting pressure change can feel like riding an elevator to the top of Mount Everest — in the blink of an eye. Or so writes PNNL science writer Tom Rickey. Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

“Think of the pressure change you feel when an elevator zips you up multiple floors in a tall building. Imagine how you’d feel if that elevator carried you all the way up to the top of Mount Everest — in the blink of an eye.

“That’s similar to what many fish experience when they travel through the turbulent waters near a dam. For some, the change in pressure is simply too big, too fast, and they die or are seriously injured.

“Those sudden changes can have a catastrophic effect on fish, most of which are equipped with an organ known as a swim bladder — like a balloon — to maintain buoyancy

We say “I see” to mean “I understand.” When the writer sees how complex processes work and shows us what he sees, the reader can see and understand too.

And that’s what makes Rickey, PNNL’s senior advisor for News and Media Relations, a master of metaphor.

4 ways to write like Rickey

Tom Rickey started his career as a high school teacher and soccer coach. And — were it not for an incident involving breaking the principal’s car on the way to a soccer match, losing the match 12-0 then losing the principal’s gas credit card on the trip home — he might be still be a high school teacher and soccer coach today.

Tom Rickey - master of metaphor

When I grow up, I’m going to write like this guy. Tom Rickey brings to life stories of PNNL scientists who are solving the mysteries of the universe.

Instead, Rickey has been covering science for more than 25 years, at the University of Rochester, the University of Rochester Medical Center and PNNL.

Want to become a master of metaphor yourself? Take Tom’s tips for clarifying complex concepts:

1. Picture each step. Visually understand the process you are trying to describe.

“The microbe sticks to the plant,” your subject matter expert says.

How? You ask. Like Velcro? Or does it skewer the plant — like, stick a sword in and then the sword gets stuck, like Excalibur? Or does it just become a big sticky blob, like chewing gum?

You need to know.

For one PNNL release, “How a plant beckons the bacteria that will do it harm,” Rickey wrote:

“A common plant puts out a welcome mat to bacteria seeking to invade, and scientists have discovered the mat’s molecular mix.

“… [T]he humble and oft-studied plant Arabidopsis puts out a molecular signal that invites an attack from a pathogen. It’s as if a hostile army were unknowingly passing by a castle, and the sentry stood up and yelled, “Over here!” — focusing the attackers on a target they would have otherwise simply passed by.

“‘This signaling system triggers a structure in bacteria that actually looks a lot like a syringe, which is used to inject virulence proteins into its target,’ … said Thomas Metz, an author of the paper and a chemist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.”

2. Ask. Ask again. Keep asking. Ask the source — again and again, if necessary — to describe the process.

When PNNL engineers invented a chemical reactor that produces crude oil from algae, Rickey knew that timing was everything. So he asked the subject matter expert — again and again — how long the process took. By the third interview, Rickey still wasn’t getting the answer he was looking for.

“At one point he gave me maybe a 500-word answer, very complex, and I just kept pushing,” says the senior advisor for News and Media Relations for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Rickey finally asked, “Well, from the time you put algae in the front end, how long before you get oil out the back end?”

The scientist “did all sorts of mathematical tricks and then said, ‘about 45 minutes.’ And there I knew I had it.”

For the resulting release, he wrote the headline “Algae to crude oil: Million-year natural process takes minutes in the lab.” Here’s the lead:

“Engineers have created a continuous chemical process that produces useful crude oil minutes after they pour in harvested algae — a verdant green paste with the consistency of pea soup.

“In the PNNL process, a slurry of wet algae is pumped into the front end of a chemical reactor. Once the system is up and running, out comes crude oil in less than an hour, along with water and a byproduct stream of material containing phosphorus that can be recycled to grow more algae.”

The release went viral. It generated 250,000 hits on the PNNL website, another 250,000 hits on the video, and coverage around the world.

3. Do the math. Analogies help readers see size and scale. So how small is small? How huge is huge?

Do the math - analogies help see scale size

An analogy that traveled the globe Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientists created a microbattery “just slightly larger than a long grain of rice,” writes PNNL science writer Tom Rickey. Photo courtesy of PNNL

For “A battery small enough to be injected, energetic enough to track salmon,” Rickey wanted to show how small the battery was. He toyed with “pencil eraser,” “fingernail” and a few other analogies.

“But really,” he says, “I got hold of this thing, and it looked like a grain of rice.”

Here’s the lead:

“Scientists have created a microbattery that packs twice the energy compared to current microbatteries used to monitor the movements of salmon through rivers in the Pacific Northwest and around the world.

“The battery, a cylinder just slightly larger than a long grain of rice, is certainly not the world’s smallest battery, as engineers have created batteries far tinier than the width of a human hair. But those smaller batteries don’t hold enough energy to power acoustic fish tags. The new battery is small enough to be injected into an organism and holds much more energy than similar-sized batteries.”

The result: That analogy “took off around the world,” Rickey says.

4. Make a metaphor. Next, compare your complex topic to something real, tangible and present in everyday life.

Your experts likely have metaphors that they use often. But give yourself the authority to improve upon them. Chances are, you’ll be able to take the analogy much further than your expert ever could.

For the release “Scientists Discover Previously Unknown Cleansing System in Brain,” Rickey crafted this analogy:

“The team found that glial cells called astrocytes use projections known as ‘end feet’ to form a network of conduits around the outsides of arteries and veins inside the brain — similar to the way a canopy of tree branches along a well-wooded street might create a sort of channel above the roadway.”

Master your metaphors.

Follow these steps, and you too will soon be a master of metaphor.

Make Your Copy More Creative

It’s not fluff. Creative material communicates more clearly, builds reader loyalty, creates a “buzz” for your topic — even enhances credibility. The good news is that creative copy doesn’t take talent. It doesn’t even take creativity. Instead, it takes techniques, tricks and time.

In Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Portland, Oregon, on July 23-24, you’ll learn how to bring your messages to life with storytelling, wordplay and metaphor. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Go beyond twist of phrase to diversify your wordplay. Soon, you’ll be listing, rhyming and twisting — even coining new words. The more techniques you master, the more sophisticated and satisfying your copy will be.
  • Work your word tools. Get links to online resources that are so good, you’ll hardly need to trouble your pretty head to write dazzling twists of phrase
  • Get inspired by some of the world’s most creative headlines
  • Ask the question that will help your subject matter experts recall a story
  • Use a simple structure for crafting an effective anecdote
  • Apply a four-step process for coming up with a creative metaphor
  • Take advantage of a fill-in-the-blanks template you can use to write your next analogy

Learn more.

Register Now

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“In all perfectly beautiful objects there is found the opposition of one part to another and a reciprocal balance.”
— John Ruskin, English author, poet, artist and critic

Balancing act

Three ways to create parallelism

To create balance, you might:

Balancing act - repeat and reverse

Repeat and reverse It’s one way to create balance in your copy.

1. Repeat and reverse.

Start with your original ideaRepeat and reverse
It was the best of timesIt was the worst of times
It was the age of wisdomIt was the age of foolishness
It was the epoch of beliefIt was the epoch of incredulity
It was the season of LightIt was the season of Darkness
It was the spring of hopeIt was the winter of despair

2. Add “don’t” or “not” before the second phrase.

Start with your original ideaAdd ‘don’t’ or ‘not’ and repeat
If you aren’t willing to own a stock for 10 years …… don’t even think about owning it for 10 minutes.
We are here to make money with you …… not off of you.
I bear a message of challenge …… not self-congratulation.
I want your attention …… not your applause.

3. Add “and” or “so” before the second phrase.

Start with your original ideaAdd ‘so,’ ‘and’ or ‘as well’ and repeat
If you suffer …… we will suffer
If we prosper …… so will you.
This printer will resonate with the CFO …… as much as it does with the CEO.

Use this rhetorical device in passages where you want the audience to savor — and remember — your point.

Play with your words

Want to master the art of making your copy more creative and engaging through wordplay?

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“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
— Peter Thiel, billionaire venture capitalist and early Facebook investor

How tiny on Twitter?

Keep tweets short on this nano-news channel

How many characters work best on Twitter? Syllables per word? What’s the best grade-level average and sentence structure to use for this nano-news channel?

Download this poster to target best practices on Twitter.

Tweet length - how tiny on twitter

Reach readers online: Get clicked, read and shared

When reading on the screen, your audience members suffer physical ailments ranging from double vision to nausea to difficulty thinking. No wonder people avoid reading online!

In Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Portland, Oregon, on July 23-24, you’ll discover how to make your Web pages, intranet articles, blog postings, tweets and status updates more relevant, valuable and interesting to your readers. And you’ll learn a six-step process for writing copy that overcomes the obstacles of online reading. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Increase usability by 124% with three simple copywriting steps
  • Determine how long your Web page should be. (Beware: Many page-length recommendations are based on outdated research)
  • Apply the 30-3-30-3 rule to give online readers what they’re looking for
  • Use the 70-20-10 rule to make sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests
  • Steal from the FBI. Write dramatic, compelling status updates that draw followers and get clicks

Learn more.

Register Now

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“Current, hard-hitting truth about best ways to catch readers in a busy, media-loaded world.”
— Laura Thierolf, communication specialist, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Bring your strategy stories to life

Learn to make your messages more creative
at the IABC World conference in Toronto

Your organization’s mission, vision and values. Your business goals and objectives. Your CEO’s messages and strategy stories.


These are some of the most important pieces we write. But they can also be some of the most boring. How do we engage employees and get them excited about these big-picture pieces? The key is to bring the view from 10,000 feet down to earth.

In my Bring Your Strategy to Life breakout session, you’ll learn how to turn ideas into things with storytelling, wordplay and metaphor.

You’ll learn:

  • Where to find online tools that virtually twist phrases for you
  • The question that will help your executives recall a story
  • A simple structure for crafting an effective anecdote
  • A four-step process for developing a creative metaphor
  • A fill-in-the-blanks template for generating metaphors


11:10 a.m.
Monday, June 8
2014 IABC World Conference
Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel
Toronto, Canada

Hope to see you there!

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“Very relevant information that I can put to use immediately. So many sessions and seminars have great information, but I walk out saying, ‘someday …’ with this session. I know I can apply the learnings tomorrow morning.”
— Amy McEvoy, senior account supervisor – PR, Rhea + Kaiser

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If so, join us on Wylie Communications Inc.’s new social media channels:

We look forward to hearing what you think about these channels. In the meantime, we look forward to “seeing” you on LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook and Twitter!

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“You wiped the slate clean for me! I had the inverted pyramid still drilled into my head. Other trainings had just layered tips on top of this. I have an entirely new approach now! Loved the feature story structure!”
— Megan Shuler, program manager, City of Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability

Ann’s touring schedule

Polish your skills at one of these events

Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations.

Come along for the ride Catch Ann at one of her upcoming workshops.

But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:

  • Anchorage on Aug. 6: Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for PRSA Alaska
  • New York City on Dec. 8: Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for PRSA
  • Portland, Ore., on July 23-24: Catch Your Readers, a two-day master class, open to the public
  • Tacoma on Aug. 20: Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound
  • Toronto on June 8-11: Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid, a breakout session for the IABC World Conference
  • Washington, D.C. on Oct 12: Catch Your Readers, a half-day pre-conference session at the PRSA 2014 International Conference.
  • Washington, D.C. on Oct 13: Lift Your ideas Off the Screen, a breakout session at the PRSA 2014 International Conference
  • Washington, D.C. on Oct 13: Meet Ann and get more writing tips at Expert Express, a 20-minute learning session in the exhibit hall at the PRSA 2014 International Conference
  • Your own home or office on Aug 21: Content Marketing Writing, a one-hour webinar for PRSA
  • Your own home or office on Aug 21: Anatomy of a News Release, a one-hour webinar for PRSA

Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.

Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.

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Where in the world is Ann?

Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program

Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.

Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:

  • Anchorage: Aug. 6
  • Kansas City: Nov. 11
  • New York City: June 23-24, June 26, & Dec. 8
  • Portland, Ore.: July 23-24
  • Philadelphia, Penn.: July 15
  • Seattle: June 17-18
  • Tacoma: Aug. 20
  • Toronto: June 8-11
  • Washington, D.C.: Oct 12-13

Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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