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.