Imagine you’re in this situation: You have a big idea. It’s not one people have heard before, but its impact could be huge. You have an opportunity to talk about it (say, to present it to your boss, or in a session at a conference), but your time slot is short. On top of that, your audience isn’t an expert. They don’t know what you know. But you still need them to act… which means they have to understand and agree with your idea first.
So, how do you get a new idea across to an inexpert audience in a short period of time? Explain your idea in terms the audience already understands. Use something your audience knows about to help them understand something they don’t.
Use an analogy.
To explain why, I’ll use one of my favorite analogies about how the brain works. This one is from Kendall Haven, in his must-read book Story Smart: Using the Science of Story to Persuade, Influence, Inspire, and Teach (affiliate link). He uses the analogy of file folders in file cabinets to explain how the brain establishes context and relevance for new information.
As Haven describes it, as we move through our lives, our brain creates “file folders” of information as we create stories (unconsciously) about what we experience and then categorize them. When we get new information or new experiences, our brains first “check” those folders to see if the new information is similar to or matches anything already in “storage.”
That pre-existing information provides context (Haven: “the surrounding parts that determine meaning; background”) — “Ah, this is like X, and this is what I know and feel about it.”
Your brain also uses information in its file folders to decide relevance (“implying close relationship or importance”) — “Based on what I already know this is (or isn’t) important to me.”
What that means for you is this: it’s not just the information about an idea that counts. It’s the familiarity of that information. You understand, agree with, and act on new information by understanding how it’s like, or unalike, what you already know.
The challenge with a new idea, though, is that those mental file folders of knowledge start empty. If someone has never heard of your big idea, their brains go check the folder and see nothing there. When nothing is there, Haven notes, they’ll often use that as an excuse to ignore the new information. (The brain’s rationalization for that is something like, “If this were important to me, I’d already know something about it. Since I don’t know anything, it must not be important, and I don’t need to pay attention to it.”)
But, if you can link new information to “old,” or pre-existing, knowledge in people’s heads (to the file folders that aren’t empty), you give people ready-made, and quick, context. In their great book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (yep, another affiliate link, but this is also a must-have in the message-maker’s library), Chip and Dan Heath share this example: the movie Alien was sold as “[the movie] Jaws in space.”
By linking their new, unfamiliar movie to a very successful one potential producers already knew (Jaws), the Alien creators could shortcut the explanation. Of course, they’d eventually need to follow up with the actual characters, plot, etc., but that first, fast, use of analogy got them enough understanding and agreement from producers to proceed to that longer explanation.
Sometimes, though, those analogies are a little too familiar. They’re overused — cliché, even. Think about how often you’ve heard something akin to “don’t be like Blockbuster” (or Kodak, or any number of other companies that didn’t adapt quickly enough to changes in the market). You’ve heard some analogies so much you start to tune them out.
“Wait a minute,” you say, “Didn’t you just say familiarity was a good thing?” Yes… to a point. The problem with overused analogies is that people start to make assumptions based on those folders they access a lot. “Oh, the Blockbuster story again. I’ve heard this before. Time to check my Fantasy Football league standings…”
The key, then, is to find analogies that are both familiar and unusual. For example, I’m working on a new keynote for this year (working title is “The Conversational Case: How to Script the Stories that Sell Ideas”), and in it, I talk about that much-needed opening shot as the critical first step in being able to talk about your ideas.
I could have used “Jaws in space,” but even that feels a bit overused to me as an example. “Jaws in space” worked because (a) people knew Jaws, but (b) hadn’t seen that plotline carried out in space before. So, instead of something people might tune out, I raided my #swipefile for something else that would do a similar job and found this. And I can tell you, it’s a guaranteed laugh every time I use it. It also gets the point across: a single sentence is often the basis of what we do (or watch), so it has to be good, and in a very specific way.
The frustration, of course, is that if we see someone else use a great, and new, analogy we often want to use it, too. But using someone else’s analogy without credit is unethical, full stop. So how do you find your own?
It’s a pretty simple process, really:
- Think about the underlying concept of what you’re talking about. In my example: single sentences that drive decisions.
- Think of other things that are like that. I brainstormed famous newspaper headlines, famous taglines and phrases (“if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,”) movie descriptions and loglines, etc.
- Pick the one that has the best combination of accurate and unusual. For movie descriptions and loglines, I could have used “Jaws in space” (overdone), the Pixar Pitch (both overdone and not quite the right match here), “A young girl is transported…” (what I chose), or any number of other things.
This is, by the way, why having a #swipefile is so handy, whether it’s similar to what I share or one you’ve built yourself. You always have something to go digging in when you need a new or different analogy or example.
Analogies are everywhere. Indeed, as cognitive science scholar Douglas Hofstadter argues, analogy is the “core of cognition.” Because it’s how people understand the world around them, analogy is your personal power tool for explaining any idea simply and well, no matter how much time you have, nor how expert your audience is.Analogy is your personal power tool for explaining any idea simply and well. Click To Tweet
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