When Analogies Fail, and What You Can Do About It


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You know how those Viagra commercials show you how wonderful life is with their drug: with virile types driving big trucks or couples lounging in an outdoor bathtub? Right after those scenes comes the disclaimer that tells you about the risks you run when you use the wonder drug.

This article is the disclaimer. So far, I’ve written about how powerful analogies can be in your presentation, but you do run risks when you deploy that “perfect” analogy. After all, persuasion is a two-way street, and your audience may not passively sit there and accept what you’re selling. You may be so focused on getting your chess pieces into position to attack your opponent that you overlook the danger to yourself. Any time you decide to use an analogy to dramatize of support your proposal, you run several risks:

They may shoot down your analogy. In 1988, Dan Quayle was debating Lloyd Bentsen in the Vice-Presidential debate. Quayle tried to defuse concerns about his youth and inexperience by pointing out: “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.” Bentsen replied: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Many analogies seem to fit so well that you take it for granted they will be accepted without argument by your listeners, but be prepared in case someone in the audience tries to show that the analogy does not apply.

They may turn your analogy against you. Your listeners may accept the analogy but point out a different lesson from it. For example, the story above made the point that an opponent may crush your analogy. But someone could weaken that analogy I used above by pointing out that the Bush-Quayle ticket actually won.

This points out the danger of falling in love with your own analogy; you see its beauty but may be blind to its weaknesses. Listeners who are opposed to your idea are going to be much more objective and may bring to mind other details about the source analogy that are just as important. Every analogy is going to have differences as well as similarities, and you can count on listeners to point those out. Here’s an example of someone trying to use an analogy to sell a new concept, from the movie Jurassic Park:

Dr. Hammond: All major theme parks have had delays. When they opened Disneyland, nothing worked.
Dr. Malcolm: But. John. If the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.

They may counter with a stronger analogy. You see this all the time in the Sunday morning news shows where competing experts debate some pressing international question. One may bring up WWII to urge that we stand up to an aggressor nation, and the other will counter with the specter of Vietnam.

“Pressure-test” your analogy. As with anything else you put into your presentation, spend some time considering the opposing point of view. It will help strengthen your arguments and you might even learn something that will improve your proposal. Put yourself in the position of a skeptic and try to poke holes in your own analogy, and then come up with answers to those counters. In Quayle’s case, Bentsen was expecting the Kennedy analogy; if it was that obvious to the opposition, Quayle’s handlers should have anticipated his reaction.

If you’re going to use a story, research it to get all the facts, because the part that you remember is only a small part of the entire story. When I thought of the analogy contained in the Dan Quayle story, I did not automatically think focus on the fact that Quayle did, after all, win the election.

Other articles in this series:

Analogies Are Powerful

How Analogies Help Sell New Concepts

How to Select the Right Analogy

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jack Malcolm
Jack founded Falcon Performance Group in 1996 specifically to combine his complex-sale expertise and his extensive financial background to design and implement complete sales process improvement initiatives at top national and international corporations.


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