How to Use Analogy in Presentations

If used correctly, analogies can greatly strengthen and nuance a presentation. Like most vague literary terms that we haven’t thought twice about since high school, it’s helpful to start with a definition: An analogy is a comparison between two things, typically on the basis of their structure and for the purpose of explanation or clarification. It’s essentially a complex metaphor, and it’s certainly one of the best ways to clarify dense, difficult information for your audience. Here are some tips on how to use analogies effectively in presentations.

Statistics Don’t Stick

We’ve discussed at length on this blog about ways to effectively use statistics. None of those methods involve simply stating a statistic and moving on. Statistics don’t stick with audiences; people don’t remember cumbersome data if it’s not presented in a framework that provides meaning for them. Chip and Dan Heath, reinforce this in their book Made to Stick, writing, “Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship. It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than the number.” Using appropriate analogies is an effective way to establish that relationship. They cite the Beyond War movement in the 1980s as an example of using a compelling analogy to provide context for an abstract idea.

The group was on a mission to prove to people the real danger of nuclear weapons, and they needed to make this abstract, vague notion a tangible one. They did this at various ‘house parties’ by dropping BBs into a metal bucket. The representative dropped one BB in the bucket to represent the Hiroshima bomb, and then spoke to the calamitous effects of that event. Then he dropped ten BBs in the bucket, representing the power of the missiles on one nuclear submarine. Last, he dropped 5,000 BBs in the bucket, one for every nuclear warhead in the world.

This analogy provided a poignant framework for the audience. They would remember for a long time the haunting sound of the BBs hitting the metal, and that sound would be forever tied to the impact of a nuclear weapon. Vague, abstract information doesn’t stick with audiences. Tangible, visual analogies do.

Scale and Topic Matters

One of the most important considerations when dealing with analogy is scale. It’s imperative to choose the right scale, which means selecting the most tangible one as possible. We’ve all heard analogies with a scale “reaching from the Earth to the Moon x amount of times.” That can be an appropriate scale if you’re dealing with a very large statistic, but if you’re talking about a few miles, that scale would be much too large. Choose a framework for your analogy that imparts a compelling impression on the audience. They should come away from your analogy with an ‘Aha!’ or ‘Wow!’ reaction because the comparison feels so tangible.  

And be sure to choose an appropriate analogy in terms of topic. If you’re speaking to Europeans, soccer might be a great analogy to invoke when talking about percentages. But if you’re speaking to Americans, maybe football would be better. Make the analogy easy for the audience to relate to as well as understand. Don’t forget that your audience’s needs are the most important thing. Fashion your analogies accordingly.

Use Wisely

Regardless of all the benefits of using analogies, proceed with caution when crafting a presentation with one. Remember that your audience doesn’t know what you know as well as you do, so keep everything as simple as possible. It’s easy to mislead or confuse people with a convoluted analogy, so put yourself in the audience’s shoes before you decide if it works or doesn’t. The whole point of using an analogy is to make things easier to understand, not more difficult, so use them only when you’re dealing with recondite material. Don’t make something more complicated than it needs to be.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, beware of bringing analogies full circle, or referring to them at several different times during your presentation. The meaning can easily get confused, and you can lose the audience by inducing a ‘Wait, what is he talking about?’ moment.

Use analogies wisely, and only when it will, without a doubt, help your audience more fully understand your presentation. 

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