Analogize It!

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It’s one of the most common communications white lies we tell ourselves: “If I say the words, people will get it.” Even when your audience is well-versed in your subject matter, it’s not always true.

The truth is, the most accurate data points and thoughtful analysis in the world won’t resonate if they’re not memorable.

Analogies are one powerful tool to pull this off, as brilliantly demonstrated last week by Harvard economist and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.

Summers, speaking at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, blasted Washington for its failure to reform business tax policy.

He could have simply criticized Congress for its inertia. Instead, he likened the situation to a library with a large amount of overdue books:

“You might offer amnesty to get people to return the books. You might announce you will never offer amnesty, so people will take fines seriously and return the books. Only an idiot would put a sign on the door saying, ‘No amnesty now, but we’re thinking hard about amnesty for next month.’

You laugh, but American corporations have $2 trillion-plus overseas. If they bring that cash back right now, they pay 35 percent. If you’ve picked up any newspaper in the last seven years, you’ll know that Congress has been actively debating changes to that policy—for seven years. Just like the sign on the door of the library saying they’re thinking about amnesty for next month. It would be hard to conceive a policy better designed to keep that cash outside the US and not invested in the US than the policy we have pursued.” (excerpt via WSJ)

Summers drove his point of view home with a useful, accessible analogy – and managed to make a talk on corporate tax policy (slightly) fun.

In your next presentation, try using an analogy, even if you’re not used to it.

Analogies are a little like new shoes – in order to know if they’ll work, you need to try them on!

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One comment on “Analogize It!

  1. I absolutely agree – analogies are great! They can make people laugh and allow them to see the world from a different perspective.

    They’re also terrific when you haven’t got a personal story you can use.

    On the other hands stories (if you can think of one you can tie in with your argument) are even more personal, and will tend to engage people emotionally in a way that an analogy won’t. There’s even research that telling stories synchronises your audience’s brain to yours – I wrote a blog piece about this if you’re interested here:

    That said, I do *love* a good analogy and usually feel quite delighted when I come up with one. And it’s a great feeling to see the dawning of realisation on an audience’s faces when the penny starts to drop!

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