Stories are full of metaphors and similes.

Many of us spend at least a plurality of our day in meetings or talking with people. The give and take of conversation is core to software development. Ron Jefferies stated that user stories included a card, conversation, and confirmation. The problem is immediately apparent to anyone that has been involved with getting work done; language is imprecise. Metaphors are one of the culprits. Clean Language, borrowed from psychotherapy, is one of the tools that can be used to shine a light on what a speaker means when they use a phrase. In Clean Language – Basic Concepts it was noted that clean language can be used to establish the underlying meaning of a metaphor. It turns out that identifying metaphors is not as easy as the literature suggests. Exploring metaphors and why we care is an important digression.

A metaphor is a phrase that makes a comparison (implicit, explicit or even hidden) between unrelated two items that share some common characteristics.  We used the phrase “the lake is a mirror today” earlier in this theme as an illustration. Often the more contradictory the compared items the sharper the contrast. I recently heard a shopkeeper say “we’re barely keeping our heads above water”, the comparison of running a business to drowning is very stark. Metaphors are a tool to appeal directly to the senses of listeners which invoke System 1 or Fast Thinking, as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow. In conversations, metaphors are often used as a form of mental shorthand so that the people communicating don’t have to think very deeply about concepts. In story development or refinement sessions metaphors are used because there is an assumption that everyone connects the same dots when they hear the phrase. Assumptions are fraught. 

Dr. Graves used the term metaphor when defining his approach to clean language. All metaphors need to be examined. An important subgroup of metaphors are similes. Similes are a figure of speech that makes an explicit comparison. A simile often uses terms like “like a” or “as a” to identify the comparison. “Crazy like a fox” is a simile. All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes. 

Regardless of whether implicit or explicit, metaphors are a tool to add color but they DO NOT belong in user stories. I recently was emailed an example of a user story (paraphrased ) that used a metaphor (a simile in this case).  

John, the customer service rep, wants the integration to a customer’s loans to be as smooth as silk so that the customer experience will be stellar.  

The “smooth as silk” phrase makes excellent literature but it is uncodable and untestable. Ron Jefferies’ 3 Cs suggest a path forward, Metaphor needs to be replaced with a conversation. Graves’ Clean Language Questions are a path for that conversation. 


Next: Clean Language Questions