Analogies: Powerful Communication Tools
When the Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial supporting oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, here’s how the paper addressed critics who opposed opening up this corner of Alaska to increase America’s energy supply:
“Thanks to modern drilling technology, all of this oil and gas can be developed from a sliver of the state: fewer than 2,000 acres, or less than 0.01% of the wildlife refuge’s acreage. If Alaska were the size of the front of this newspaper, that 2,000 acre footprint would be a single letter.”
Analogies are powerful tools of persuasion. In fact, one research study showed that they are the most effective communications tool you can use to change minds. (Stories are a close second.) How so?
Analogies engage the listener and excite the imagination. They do this first by creating some tension; the listener is surprised, puzzled, maybe even confused by the comparison. Then that tension is relieved after the listener thinks about what was said, and makes sense of it. In short, analogies change the audience from passive to active listeners.
Analogies are especially powerful in communicating ideas and explaining concepts. For example, most boat owners know how important it is to protect the bottom of their boat’s hull from slime, larvae and other organisms that can cause damage. Applying antifouling paint every year or so is the most common way to protect the hull. But how do these paints work?
Most antifouling paints are partially soluble which means that as water passes across the surface of the coating, it reduces the thickness of the paint at a controlled rate, which always leaves a fresh biocide (it kills living organisms) at the surface of the paint throughout the boating season. Here’s an analogy: the paint coating wears down much like a bar of soap would wear away without losing its effectiveness.
When most people in business communicate, they rely heavily on facts and logic. Their presentations, speeches, even their conversations are peppered with statistical information. But people rarely respond to facts and logic alone.
Statistics lack impact largely because they’re abstract and lack color. Studies show that people absorb information in proportion to its vividness. And most analogies are vivid. Also, that vividness creates more memory recall than a fact-heavy style of communication does.
Let’s end with our favorite analogy. It comes from the movie Flash of Genius, starring Greg Kinnear. The movie is based on the true story of Dr. Robert Kearns (Kinnear) who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. When Ford steals his idea, Kearns takes on the auto giant.
In one courtroom scene, a professor testifies on behalf of Ford that Mr. Kearns didn’t create anything new. His basic unit consists of a capacitor, a variable resistor and a transistor – all basic building blocks in electronics that can be found in any catalog. “All Mr. Kearns did was to arrange them in a new pattern. It’s not the same as inventing something new.”
Then Kearns, who is representing himself, cross-examines the professor. He’s holding a book by Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities – and reads the first few words: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.”
Kearns asks the professor if Dickens created the words “it,” “was,” “the, “best” and “times.” The professor responds, “No.”
The jury, mesmerized, listens as Kearns says, “Look, I’ve got a dictionary here. I haven’t checked, but I would guess that every word that’s in this book can be found in this dictionary. There’s probably not a single new word in this book. All that Charles Dickens did was to arrange them in a new pattern. But Dickens did create something new, by using words, the only tools that were available to him – just as almost all inventors in history have had to use the tools that were available to them. Telephones, space satellites – all were made from parts that already existed – parts that you might buy out of a catalog. Right professor? No further questions.”
No further comment!