Analogies are well-known as an excellent way to connect with your audience and explain difficult concepts. But not every analogy is made equal. In 2010, a Geometry teacher in Warrior, Alabama was interrogated by the Secret Service. The reason? While teaching about angles, he used an analogy of shooting the President in order to explain the concept.
Thankfully, you probably won’t ever make an analogy that gets you in so much trouble. Most likely, however, you can improve your use of analogies. This post is not a comprehensive coverage of analogies, but instead a deeper look at what I call relevant analogies.
A relevant analogy is one that directly ties into something within your speaking situation. For example, the audience, an object in the room, or something that happened earlier in the event.
The benefit: using relevant analogies helps you look present and confident. It shows that you haven’t already pre-scripted all your words, and you can actually adjust to your situation and use it to your advantage.
In my experience, these are the most powerful analogies, for a couple of reasons.
1. While most analogies require the audience to imagine what you are talking about, an analogy related to their life experiences is quite vivid and relatable. They immediately get what you’re talking about.
2. It shows that you care about your audience; you’re not just delivering a pre-scripted speech that’s irrelevant to them.
If you happen to know something about the audience, such as a common occupation, college degree, hobby, or interest of theirs, you can usually find a way to tie it into the speech.
For an audience of firefighters, you can make casual references to different parts of their job. This analogy isn’t especially genius or creative, it’s just a kickstart example.
“As a firefighter, you know that if you tie a knot for whatever purpose, you have to use the correct knot and tie it well, or else it could end in disaster. Unfortunately, most people use the wrong knot for the job when it comes to [subject]”
Not particularly brilliant, but you’ll be surprised how effective a simple analogy like this can be.
Pitfalls to avoid
Never make an analogy that you’re not 100% certain is accurate. If your audience is composed of doctors and you mess up your medical terms or say “I’m sure you’d agree with…” and they don’t, you’re in trouble. There is no easier way to ruin your credibility and rapport with your audience than getting their job wrong.
If your audience is mixed, and there isn’t a specific analogy to be made based on common life experience, you can resort to a simple analogies on common jobs that everyone can understand. Eg. putting a bandaid on a bullet wound.
An object in the room
The reason an analogy based on something present in the room is useful is because the audience can identify with it more than an abstract idea. Instead of imagining a scene that you describe, they can just look at it and immediately see the value of your analogy.
I had a debate case one year to reform an agency that was consistently failing to do its job. We had a statistic showing that it failed to enforce the law 41% of the time. You can make all kinds of analogies based off this, but we frequently used an analogy the debate judge could easily identify with:
“Throughout this round, you’re using a pen to write down the arguments we make. Now imagine if your pen didn’t work 4/10 of the time. Obviously you would replace it or fix it. This is an obvious choice when looking at this pen, and it’s fairly simple in the context of this agency.”
This analogy is difficult to disagree with. Furthermore, it simplifies the choice for the judge. Instead of having to think about a complex agency, they can just think “well, I would definitely replace that pen… so why not this agency?”
An event from earlier
If something particularly interesting or memorable happens in your speaking venue, you can call upon that for a comparison or analogy.
I had a debate round in which the other team continually claimed we had not provided any examples as proof that our case was true. However, we did provide an example all the way back in our first speech. In my final speech, said:
“You know, [opponent’s name] is a little bit like Dory from Finding Nemo. [pause] He has short-term memory loss. Think about it, his main point was that we don’t have an example, when we’ve pointed him back numerous times to our first speech where we read a quote from an expert on the topic.”
If you are speaking directly after someone else has spoken, you can use a point they made and tie it in to your speech. This is especially useful if the previous speaker(s) said something very funny that the audience enjoyed. You can piggyback off the joke by adding on to it, or tying it in to your speech.
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