How to explain things better using analogies

by Maia Miller

This article is an adapted version of Maia's talk at the nz.js(con); 2021 in Wellington, New Zealand.

As technical people, we often find ourselves in situations where we’re explaining things. This might be in social settings, client meetings, or to our less technical or less experienced co-workers.

The analogy – explaining an unfamiliar concept in terms of a familiar one - is a tool that we can use in our communication tool kit to enhance our ability to explain things to others.

Why analogies? There are several reasons, all of which relate to giving people new ways of thinking about a concept. Have an idea you’re struggling to get across? An analogy can be the thing that helps things “click”. They can be useful in training and teaching, inspiring and breathing life into something possibly dry. Additionally, employing an analogy to a situation can help people think creatively about a problem that they’re stuck on.

Maia Miller speaking on stage with a screen behind her.

Maia speaking at the nz.js(con); 2021

Here are some tips for how to give an effective analogy:

1) Familiarity is your friend!

Grounding your imagery to something familiar is key to being successful at analogies. The more familiar, the easier it is for your listener to conjure up an image. Moreover, it means less upfront explanation required by you. It’s cross-cultural, too – regardless of your background, everyone knows what a house, car or human body is. Other good starting off points are often frequented places (homes, offices, neighbourhoods); common tasks or chores (grocery shopping); or simplified physical systems (plumbing, walking).

2) Keep it concrete

It’s best to work off something the listener can visualise. What we want to avoid is explaining an abstract idea with another abstract idea – understanding a new technical concept by likening it to a theoretical mathematical model probably won’t help the learner very much (unless they are a theoretical math whiz, in which case maybe it’s the perfect analogy!). The problem in this scenario is the cognitive load. Our listener is already doing a lot of mental work trying to understand the new thing we’re explaining, so we want to avoid saddling them with more concepts to hold on to. Specifically, visualisations make use of the right side of the brain - people are using the left side of their brain to understand what you’re saying, so allowing them to use the right side of their brain will lighten the cognitive load.

This applies to jargon, too – avoid it as much as you can, as it’s one more thing for people to remember. Leaving out the jargon is beneficial cross-culturally as well, as it encourages you to use language that everyone understands.

3) Get it 80% accurate

Analogies are a compromise between storytelling and accuracy. You want to identify the broad principle you’re trying to explain, rather than get into the small details right away. If you’re explaining something 100% accurately, it means you’re essentially just explaining the thing itself. Instead, what we want is to take a step back, help our listener understand the broad strokes, and then zoom in on the details once the main concept has come across.

4) Storytelling

As mentioned, analogies are a bit like storytelling. With that, we want to deliver them in a way that is most effective.

When telling an analogy, there are 2 steps: first, start with the familiar. Explain how that works, starting your listener off on comfortable grounds and have them build the mental image first. Second, make the connections between your concept and the familiar.
 

As knowledge bearers, it’s our job to communicate information to others. The nature of our jobs and our knowledge means that others can’t always meet us halfway. So it’s our responsibility to meet them where they are with language, images and tools that they understand.