In Praise of Analogies

Professional writers—fiction, non-fiction, journalists, even sportswriters—strive to find new and creative ways to add dimension to their writing. One of the most effective techniques at their disposal is to use an analogy or a comparison of seemingly unrelated subjects. As soon as readers see the connection between the two, they gain a better understanding of the primary material.

There is scientific evidence to support the use of such illustrative material. A New York Times article reported that:

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read…an evocative metaphor…Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.

The article demonstrated the power of metaphors by citing a study made by a team of researchers from Emory University:

[W]hen subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

Analogies are particularly useful in explaining high technology. In the early days of information technology, the superhighway was the metaphor-of-choice; today it is the cloud. The Swiss Army knife symbolizes multitasking; low-hanging fruit is an analogy for a readily accessible opportunity; and Levi’s supplying blue jeans to Gold Rush miners represents a first-to-market advantage. Several years ago, a pharmaceutical client of ours described their skin patch drug delivery technology by comparing its action to a truck transporting cargo across a border. In her review of a current book about the semiconductor industry called Chip War, Virginia Heffernan analogized silicon chips and  art, “Trying to understand the digital world by studying only Facebook or Google is like trying to understand architecture by studying only frescoes.

An analogy can help when pitching to investors. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and now a partner at Greylock Partners, hears many pitches from entrepreneurs. In a post on his website, he offered advice on how “entrepreneurs should approach the pitch process”:

Every great consumer internet company grows up to be a unique organization. But in the early days, you want to use analogies to successful outcomes to describe what your company is and what its potential could be. Time is short—it helps to refer to what those investors already understand.

The best pitch I know was in Hollywood for a film called “Man’s Best Friend.” The pitch was “Jaws with Paws.” Investors thought that if the movie “Jaws” was a huge success, maybe a similar premise on land with a dog could be a huge success. The movie turned out to be terrible, but the pitch was excellent.

At the other end of the spectrum from pitching for financing is having to explain complex science. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a physician, oncologist, biologist, and bestselling author, is a master of using analogies to clarify his complex science. I invite you to read how he does it in my Forbes blog

Activate neural activity in your audiences by including analogies in your presentations.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fire—available on Amazon and other retailers.