Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
Delivering a speech or making a presentation is asking your audience to go somewhere with you. Maybe it’s to agree with you, hire you, vote for you, support your cause….We’ve talked plenty in this blog about focussing on the audience’s needs and interests, and making sure you connect to your listeners.
But what happens if you want to interest your listeners in something unfamiliar – a new idea, technique, or approach to something, which they’ve never come up against? It’s a common problem.
The solution is to start with something they do know, and then connect the known to the new thing – the unknown. To explain a new idea or help a person understand something they’ve never met before, you should start out on familiar ground, then lead them to the new ground.
And here is your secret weapon. Analogy. Like a hiker needs a Leatherman, a speaker needs analogies. Analogies make that journey both smoother and faster.
An analogy says x is like y. It’s a tool of comparison. It uses the brain’s ability to form patterns by association. You look at two things (one known, one unknown) and see the similarity between the two. Analogy is a cousin of simile and metaphor, but the best ones offer a complete snapshot.
An analogy is a short cut because it simplifies things, and makes your meaning vivid and instantly understandable. A good analogy is memorable, a souvenir which sits nicely on the brain’s back shelf, recallable at will. (That’s an analogy BTW). What’s more, research supports the idea that analogies are an important part of cognition, helping us to frame and comprehend new ideas.
Remember Shrek’s ‘Ogres are like onions’ line? (Not that Donkey has enough brains to get it). That’s an analogy – a cute way to suggest that there’s more to him that what you see.
And how about this characterisation of Australia:
“Every country is like a particular type of person. America is like a belligerent, adolescent boy, Canada is like an intelligent, 35 year old woman. Australia is like Jack Nicholson. It comes right up to you and laughs very hard in your face in a highly threatening and engaging manner. In fact, it’s not so much a country as such, more a sort of thin crust of semi-demented civilisation caked around the edge of a vast, raw wilderness, full of heat and dust and hopping things.”
Or this one on the Vietnam war:
“Withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public; the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded.” – Henry Kissinger in a Memo to President Richard Nixon
Analogies help counteract complexity, so they are especially important for bridging the gap between experts and non-experts, and making technical or scientific information easy to understand.
A simple example is to say that we need food to fuel our bodies just as a car needs petrol.
This more complex one uses an everyday image to clarify a scientific principle:
A two-ton chunk of Chinese satellite plunging back into the atmosphere took a last minute 1,000-mile detour, and dropped into the Pacific Ocean west of Peru. Trackers at the U.S. Space Command had expected it to drop into the Pacific 500 miles west of the Baja California Peninsula along the Tropic of Cancer…The trackers likened the effect to dropping a coin into water. “Sometimes it goes straight down, and sometimes it turns end over end and changes direction,” one of the trackers said. “The same thing happens when an object hits the atmosphere.”
“The Dog and the Frisbee” is a speech by a leading banker who mixes play with economics and physics to explain why we should simplify international banking regulation. It’s such a good analogy that even I – with no training in economics, can follow it.
One of the most brilliant analogies ever is in the script for the movie Apollo 13. “We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole made for this, using nothing but that“…. very simple comparisons which sidestep the techno-garble that really would have occurred, and keep the lay audience on the edge of its chair, because we understand the essence of the challenge… the geeks are preparing to save the astronauts from doom.
Analogies can also be visual. The illustration on this post is from an article saying that the warehouse in the supply chain is much like the heart in the human body. The presentation goes on to say that its health, much like the human heart’s, is easily overlooked.
The best analogies for speakers are brief, and capture what’s wanted in just a few sentences. To come up with an analogy, keep asking yourself, “What is this similar to? What else has some of the same traits in common?”
Check to make sure the analogy you use is appropriate for your audience. All the examples I’ve given you work because they communicate in terms which fit the background and context they’re used in, the audience will be able to ‘translate’ the analogy correctly.
If you want a laugh and some clues on what not to do, review the well intentioned bloopers listed here.