Bridging the Information Gap with Analogies

We’ve learned that analogies can greatly enhance people’s understanding of complex concepts. We’ve also learned that you can overuse, misuse or confuse people even more with the wrong analogies.

Poor connections in a hot-wiring job sure won’t get you where you want to go, and rickety bridges don’t span a gap safely.

Analogies are useful when well chosen, and they demonstrate a lighter side of your creativity. When you’re writing about technical material or difficult concepts, analogies break out the party. They add some spark and humor to your content while enhancing the reader’s ability to grasp the ideas.

Go ahead. Show off. Have fun.

So how do you write a good analogy? Is there a right way to go about it?

Indeed there is. A good analogy is the kind that has the person saying, “Ah, that’s a great way to put it. I get it now.” Here are some key elements that get you to that point:

  • Make sure your analogy is visual so that people can see it in their mind’s eye.
  • Be sure to choose an analogy that is illustrative of the concept you want to teach.
  • Always choose analogies with concepts that are familiar to the person.
  • Keep analogies appropriate, clear, relevant and short.
  • Use analogies when concepts are complex or hard to grasp.

Consider whether readers would understand the analogy. (We’re in an international virtual world, folks. Don’t assume that everyone lives as you do.) An analogy that compares something culture- or country-specific would fall flat with readers from other locations in the world.

Explain your analogy properly, too. It’s not enough to say, “Blood is like a river” or “A heart is like a pump.” Go further and be clear. Blood and a river flow along their containing shores, transporting bits of debris and carrying oxygen about. A heart and a pump squeeze and release to keep liquids flowing.

Analogies generally compare concepts that seem unalike but that have very similar elements. Another way to get the point across is to use contrasting analogies. Someone’s mood might be compared to hot and cold, night and day or rain and sunshine, for example.

If you’ve done your job of creating a good analogy, then your readers should grasp the concept you were trying to clarify. They shouldn’t need to rely on the analogy as a crutch.

A person who learned that a heart pumps blood through an analogy should be able to focus on the functioning of a heart – he’s grasped the concept. He should wean off the analogy and not have to depend on it continually for his own understanding.

And when that happens, you know you’ve taught you readers well.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. James,

    Letting go of the crutch is especially important. I can always tell when a writer hasn’t made their analogy helpful enough when I’m reading some complex new theory and I keep having to flip the page back (or scroll up) to revisit the analogy just to keep up with the real point.

    String theory, new macroeconomics ideas, and SQL come to mind. I think I know what they’re saying, but I keep having to go back to the “string theory is like a….” Then I know I really don’t know.

    Y’know?

    Poor connections in a hot-wiring job took me a minute, lol. Not my world! Then I pictured James (well, I can’t picture you, exactly…) under someone’s steering wheel in a MWP drive-by and I caught on. 😉

    Bridging the gap I got instantly.

    Nice series. Very easy to follow.

    Regards,

    Kelly

    Kelly’s last blog post..The Best Money I Ever Spent

  2. Great article. My favorite line is:

    Make sure your analogy is visual so that people can see it in their mind’s eye.

    If you don’t create the mental image, well that’s like trying to start a car without a battery. You might have the keys to start the car, but without the battery the signal to start just isn’t there.

    Hey – do I get the analogy award? 🙂

    John Hoff – eVentureBiz’s last blog post..Google’s ReadAir Allows You To Read Your RSS Feeds Like Emails

  3. Michael Martine | Remarkablogger says:

    There is an art to the analogy, and you explained it clearly–especially in your headline. You didn’t mention using your post image to strengthen the analogy, but you did that as well, which is also a great trick if you can pull it off.

    Michael Martine | Remarkablogger’s last blog post..What Are Pings, Trackbacks, and Pingbacks?

  4. When someone writes a good analogy, my reaction is, “Ah, that’s a great way to put it.” Just as you wrote in your article. It’s very rewarding to read a good analogy, particularly when the reader wants to firmly grasp the material.

    Bamboo Forest’s last blog post..How to Squash Negativity with Your Bare Hands

  5. Analogies also have another secret power: the power to prove something.

    For many simple ideas (concepts that need no explanation) an analogy can be beneficial by lending believability to your idea.

    In the same way a good analogy bridges a complicated idea to a simpler one, an analogy can bridge a new or crazy idea to one that is concrete and believable. This concept is very powerful in writing, especially persuasive writing of any type.

    Thanks for the great article James.

  6. @ Bamboo – Yes, yes it is rewarding when that happens. Very true.

    @ Michael – Damned fine point there. Pictures say all the words sometimes.

    @ John – Nope. You were good with sentence one. Sentence two was you loving the sound of your own analogy 😉

    @ Kelly – Ah, too funny. The minute you said that, I could think up at least five moments when I’ve had that happen to me. (Now that’s all I think about; thanks!)

  7. James this advice is particularly useful for tech writing. As you know, the bulk of writing I do is for SEO. I use a great deal of analogies to help clients understand things like meta tags, long-tail keywords and organic search.

    Without them, I dare say many wouldn’t understand what the heck I was talking about.

    Yuwanda

    The Freelance Writer’s Blog’s last blog post..How I Increased My Ebook Sales by 166% in Just 30 Days!

  8. @Michael: I’ll take that bow for the pictures. 😉

  9. Michael Martine | Remarkablogger says:

    @Harry, you deserve it. I often try to perpetuate an analogy with an image, so I like seeing when someone else does it.

    Michael Martine | Remarkablogger’s last blog post..What Are Pings, Trackbacks, and Pingbacks?

  10. Oh sure… you write your How To Write An Analogy post after I do my muddled analogy about shoes. (Is there a raspberries emoticon? ‘Cause I need to borrow him.) 😉

    Good to see my favorite pen men are back from hiatus. Yay.

    Amy’s last blog post..Glass or Ruby: If The Slipper Fits…

  11. Thanks for a great series on analogies! I also write a lot about technology and you laid out a great guideline on ways to use analogies for clarity.

    I just started reading you guys and you offer some very helpful writing tips to a “non-writer” blogger.

    Lauren’s last blog post..Mint.com Budgeting Tool for Micro Businesses

  12. BTW after all your analogy talk I thought you might appreciate the lighter side http://blankislikeblank.com/

    Lauren’s last blog post..Mint.com Budgeting Tool for Micro Businesses

  13. Making sure your analogy is visual is the most important aspect of the analogy in itself.

    If a person can’t see it, your going to confuse them even more. And that’s the worse thing you can do. Especially when you’re trying to get a very important point across.

    Dhane Diesil’s last blog post..642 Must Have Web & Graphic Design Resources

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  1. […] Bridging the Information Gap with Analogies at Men with Pens […]

  2. […] I was writing, I recalled that James at Men With Pens wrote a great post about analogies recently: Bridging the Information Gap with Analogies. It’s a great post, so go read that, […]

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  4. […] What do you see? A coffee cup? A Post-It note? That’s inspiration right there. Draw lines and create analogies between simple objects that surround you. A remote control can inspire a post on how blogging is […]

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