It’s generally easy to come up with an analogy to describe or support a concept you’re presenting; our minds are steeped in analogies, which is why so many of them may easily come to the surface. But you can usually improve on the first analogy that comes to mind. Here are some suggestions for choosing just the right one:
- Decide the main point
- Find the right balance between familiarity and novelty
- Test it for weaknesses
Decide the main point. Every situation can be superficially compared to others in different ways. If you want to find the analogy that gets your audience to see your point immediately, you must first be clear in your own mind what that essential point is. Once you do, it acts as a quality filter: just the process of distilling down to key words will activate your imagination and bring better analogies to mind.
Find the right balance between familiarity and novelty. Make it familiar to the audience, but not too familiar. The idea has to be something they will immediately recognize and pay attention to—if it’s familiar, they will recognize it, but if it’s too familiar they won’t pay much attention.
So many analogies are so commonly used that they become what Douglas Hofstadter calls “banalogies”—barely registering in our minds when we hear them. It’s ironic that people who urge us to be more creative can’t think of a better analogy than “thinking outside the box”. Honestly, do you envision a box in your mind when you encounter that phrase?
You have to dig deep. In my own experience, it’s easy to come up with an adequate analogy quickly, but a really compelling or specific analogy takes time. Memory is like a t-shirt drawer: the ones you wear all the time always get put back in on the top, so you use them more often. The most common analogies are always at the top of your memory, and you have to dig down to the bottom to pull up one of the less common ones. The less common ones are more likely to capture the audience’s attention. Memory is also capricious: focusing hard on finding the right analogy doesn’t always work immediately, so if you prepare early by writing a rough draft and then set it aside, better ideas bubble up later—often when you’re thinking of something else.
At the other end, sometimes analogies fail because they don’t make sense to the audience. At the very least, they should be relevant to the culture and even the age of your listeners. Because so much of the training I do is overseas, I’ve developed an awareness of how much of what we say contains references to things in the US that others don’t relate to, especially our sports. Also, as time goes on I find that audience members are getting younger every year, and many of them don’t understand the references I make to TV shows or music that may have been popular before they were even born! I was once brought up short in a training class when I compared presentation structure to a newspaper article, only to be reminded by one of the younger attendees that many people under 30 never read a newspaper.
So what’s the best way to find the right balance? Make it personal, local and timely. You can make it familiar and unique by choosing an analogy that is special to them, perhaps from their own business environment. I knew a salesperson who was selling cellular service to the Michelin plant in South Carolina. When the purchaser said he did not see much difference between the various carriers, she said she understood because she had trouble distinguishing between brands of tires. She further went on to say that there are clear differences if you are willing to look beneath the surface. You can also compare the decision you are asking them to make to a similar one they already have made. Either of these require research, but it pays off many times over in credibility.
For added impact, try to find an analogy that will resonate emotionally as well as cognitively. If you compare it to something that they have strong feelings for, the emotions evoked will attach themselves to your idea as well. One of the best ways is to tap into how they see—or want to see—themselves. For example, at one of my clients, I train their engineers in selling techniques. Because some engineers find selling distasteful, I show how selling is like engineering in certain ways, especially when viewed as a problem-solving exercise.
You especially need to consider using an analogy when referring to numbers. Some numbers needed for business presentations are either so large (billions of dollars of revenue) or so small (Six Sigma quality means 3.4 defects per million), that they are difficult to put into human perspective. Numbers also need to be placed in the proper context to be understood. Steve Jobs was once asked by a reporter how he felt about the fact that Apple’s market share was “stuck” at 5%. Jobs replied: “Our market share is greater than BMW or Mercedes in the car industry.” With one analogy Jobs put the number into context and also compared apple favorably to two well-respected brands.
Test if for weaknesses. Because every situation is different, no analogy is perfect. You have to watch for unintended effects, which is important enough to consider in the next article of this series.