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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Analogies galore

In keeping with the effective communication strategies theme, today's post is going to be about analogies and why they can be essential for getting your ideas across.

The underlying concept is very simple.  To introduce your audience to a new idea, you approach them with a preexisting idea that they are already well familiar with.  Psychologists call these preexisting and known concepts as "schemas."  Tapping into these schemas allows you to build towards a complicated and foreign concept by using familiar and simpler ideas.  For instance, you might not be familiar with how a microphone works but if an engineer broke down all the individual parts and compared them to objects you were familiar with, you could slowly connect all the smaller and less complex pieces together and start understanding how everything comes together in the end to build a functioning microphone.

This is where analogies come into play.  "Analogies derive their power from schemas and make it possible to understand a complex message because they invoke concepts that you already know."  Something easy to think about is substituted for something difficult and foreign.  When you think about it, this is a "no duh!" approach for explaining something new and potentially complicated.  But, if conscious effort and attention isn't paid to how messages are tailored, the final message can come out very convoluted, technical, academic, complicated, confusing, and foreign.  Analogies are essential for avoiding this disappointing result.

The best way to drive the point home is through breaking down an example that I believe properly uses schemas and metaphors.  I came upon this picture on a friend's profile on Facebook.

(Please note that this picture does not represent my political views on this matter. I am simply using it as an illustrative example!)

Let's consider what this graphic is doing.  Issues related to the US federal budget deal with hundreds of millions, billions, and even trillions of dollars.  The vast majority of individuals will NEVER personally deal with such amounts of money or work in positions that will give them direct experience with handling such vast levels of resources.  We simply do not understand the scope of such numbers and we really have no idea where to even start.

This example attacks this problem by comparing the federal budget to concepts that we are much more likely to be familiar with.  For instance, most of us can understand numbers that aren't in the millions, billions, and trillions.  Most of us are also probably familiar with balancing a budget, paying off debt, and using credit cards.  By tapping into these preexisting schemas, the picture makes a poignant analogy by comparing the national budget, borrowing, and debt, to a household budget, personal credit cards, and personal debt.  With the help of this analogy, the audience is hopefully less confused about the scale of the problem and the relative importance of the solutions being outlined.

However, we have to be careful when using analogies because we can "dumb down" an issue and make false comparisons.  There are NUMEROUS differences between a national budget and a personal budget.  The issue is obviously much more complicated than this simple graphic depicts.  But, by starting with simpler terms and concepts we are familiar with, we can hopefully trek towards greater complexity.  Analogies are essential for starting this journey towards deeper understanding.  When utilizing analogies, the ultimate goal is steadily increasing the level of complexity, not dumbing concepts down and leaving them in such a state.

The next time you are having difficulties communicating a novel idea or concept, try searching for schemas your audience will already be familiar with.

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