Bernard O'Riordan, Media Trainer
The movie character Forrest Gump made a ludicrous analogy famous when he said: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”
It is perhaps the most over-used saying you’ll ever hear, but it is a great example of how a simple comparison can turn an unfamiliar situation, idea or argument into something that we can all identify with.
As someone who pays attention to the power of how information is framed, I’ve learned to appreciate the impact of a good analogy.
Analogies - along with metaphors, anecdotes, idioms and other visual linguistic tools - allow you to tell a story, capture the imagination or ignite a response that can't be achieved with facts and figures alone.
Financial publications like The Australian Financial Review, The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal don't just want facts and figures: they need colourful, amusing and provocative stories to lighten the load and hold the reader's interest.
Even The Economist - which now has a global readership of almost 1.5 million at a time when most magazines and newspapers are in decline - prides itself on the storytelling abilities of its writers.
About 30 per cent of its articles are built around anecdotes and analogies rather than just cold hard facts.
So the next time you find yourself swamped in the specifics of what you're doing or struggling to explain a technical issue using simple everyday language, consider how a well-planned analogy or anecdote might help you peel back the layers and tell a story more effectively.
I say well-planned because you cannot afford to wing it. If you pitch an analogy too high, people won’t understand it; pitch it too low and they might feel patronised or offended.
When done well, these pearls of wisdom can make your message instantly memorable and highly quotable, and that’s crucial in today’s sound bite culture. Television and radio news thrives on sound bites - those brief, quotable remarks that explain big ideas simply for any audience.
When you think about it, most of us are too busy to listen to the full story these days. We want a capsule of information delivered in a few seconds that is easy to swallow and switches on a mental light bulb.
Even when the television news is on most people are doing other things, so a message needs to be memorable if it's going to stick.
For example, I remember interviewing a chief executive a few years ago about the need for due diligence when making an acquisition. It was a dry old topic but he explained it this way:
“It’s like shopping for a new car. You kick quite a few tires and examine a lot of log books before you part with your cash.”
It's an idea that has stuck with me because he took a bland idea that the business community understood and he made it memorable for a much broader audience by using simple, colourful and quotable language.
Consider how these visual examples achieve similar cut-through:
''It's as hygienically sanitised as a Hilton hotel lavatory seat,'' – the late Sydney Morning Herald critic Robin Oliver, describing the 1980s remake of the film Blue Lagoon.
"It's almost like you walk into a garage sale and see a Picasso sitting in the corner, and nobody else really knows what it is. So you sprint over there and grab it." - US college football recruiter Thomas McGaughey, after signing young Aussie superstar Brad Wing.
“An investor in a panicky market faces the same predicament as a movie-goer in a crowded theatre after somebody shouts ‘Fire!' Staying put is the sensible thing to do, as long as everybody else stays put and stays calm.” – US author and finance guru John Rothchild on investing in volatile markets.
Metaphors and idioms are similar in that you are creating word pictures to help the reader or listener visualise what you’re saying. Think of the vivid images these idioms create: “Too many irons in the fire”, “Papering over the cracks”, “Not a level playing field".
Analogies, metaphors, idioms and anecdotes are highly-effective storytelling devices that should be part of everyone’s communication toolkit.
While they often won't explain all there is to know, they will open the door to a much bigger conversation and help make your message clear, memorable and quotable.
Comparisons might be odious, but they are crucial when dealing with media in the digital age.