Harnessing the compelling power of the analogy

Published Mar 20, 2017 | Written by Jeremy Knight

The art of great storytelling comes from an ability to connect with an audience, in such a way that they reach their own understanding the point you are trying to make.  

You'll remember times you've listened to a great speaker, holding forth on their area of expertise, when something they are describing particularly resonates with you, and you are completely clear what they are trying to say to you. 

And that moment of elucidation and relevance often arrives as a result of an analogy.

According to Brian Clark, writing for Copyblogger, it's a linguist device that is hard to beat for "creating effective understanding" in your audience. And it's that engagement from and relevance to the individual that makes your storytelling all the more compelling.

For the sake of clarity, Clark reminds us what an analogy is by comparing it with its near relatives, the metaphors and the simile.  

"Rather than a figure of speech, an analogy is more of a logical argument. The structure of the argument leads to a new understanding for the audience."

So let's consider some examples of instances that the analogy has worked persuasively here.

Clark highlights an interesting and powerful instance of analogy employed by Arnold Schwarznegger in an attempt to get his audience to think more seriously about renewable energy:

“There are two doors. Behind Door Number One is a completely sealed room, with a regular, gasoline-fueled car. Behind Door Number Two is an identical, completely sealed room, with an electric car. Both engines are running full blast."  

Arnie asks his readers to choose one of those rooms to spend an hour in, with the car engines running, door closed and no gas mask to don. He interjects: "I'm guessing you chose the Door Number Two, with the electric car, right? Door number one is a fatal choice - who would ever want to breathe those fumes?" 

A powerful illustration to drive home his point on pollution and the choices we are making on behalf of the environment on a daily basis. 

Meanwhile, author John Pollack, explains in an interview, that Steve Jobs of Apple was a master analogist.  

"Though we forget it, that very word, “desktop,” is an analogy: it was meant to teach new users squeamish about the virtual world that you could use a Macintosh’s graphical interface the same way you used something you were familiar with: the top of your real, physical desk. 

...And just as you could move your real-life folders around the surface of your desk at home, so could you move these “folders” and “documents” along a “desktop.”

He underlines here how, in an attempt to make Apple Mackintosh computers more user-friendly, Jobs not only embraced the analogy of the "desktop", he let it become an inherent part of the design.

Lastly, one of my personal favourites is Malcolm Gladwell's use, in his celebrated TED talk, of the humble jar of spaghetti sauce. He describes, with great humour, the evolution of the pasta sauce industry in the US, from the one "flavour" fits all to the multitudinous varieties of sauces we see today on our supermarket shelves. Gladwell uses the analogy around a consumer heaven of diversity and preference to illustrate to his audiences his wider points about choice and happiness. 

From influencing positions on the environment to technological innovation to the gratification of consumer choice - the analogy convinces, provides clarity, encourages empathy, and furthers our understanding. 

All hail the power of the analogy!


When it comes to creating effective understanding, analogies are hard to beat. Most of their persuasive power comes from the audience arriving at the intended understanding on their own.

The doctor could have simply said that the old man’s wife had to be cheating on him. But the analogy allowed the cranky patient to come to that conclusion on his own, which is much more persuasive.

...An analogy is comparable to a metaphor and simile in that it shows how two different things are similar, but it’s a bit more complex.

Rather than a figure of speech, an analogy is more of a logical argument. The structure of the argument leads to a new understanding for the audience.

Published by Jeremy Knight March 20, 2017
Jeremy Knight