Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Analogies, the wonder tool for making sense.

heart-picDelivering 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.”

(Douglas Adams, “Riding the Rays.” The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. Macmillan, 2002)

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.

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