An Analogy Paints a Thousand Words

By Colin Harris – Conchcom Ltd

In this article I’m going to explain how using a good analogy can bring your presentation alive, and also show how the wrong analogy can leave everyone deflated. Once again, thanks to Terry Simpson for the sterling proof-reading job.

A few years ago I was working for a major US Software House as a pre-sales consultant.  I was asked to meet with a new prospect and my job was to demonstrate the flexibility of our product.  The prospect was in Northern Sweden – inside the Arctic Circle, so I found myself on a plane heading northwards.

To take my mind off the thorny question of how exactly I was going to demonstrate ‘flexibility’ and also to distract the thoughts that I was in a bog-standard commercial airliner that was soon going to have to land on a runway covered in ice I idly flicked through the in-flight magazine.  Towards the back there were some things you could buy – two objects caught my eye – and fired up my imagination…. ten minutes later they were both in my laptop bag.

I was one of the first presenters.  I explained that I was going to show them how flexible our software was.  And because I was in Sweden I would do it using an inflatable model.  There were some nervous giggles.

I then produced my first purchase – an inflatable model plane that I’d blown up and hidden behind the lectern.

A flexible inflatable plane
A flexible inflatable plane

The sight of it got a big laugh.

“Now this plane is really flexible- see, I can bend it to alter its shape – and our software is like that – it’s very configurable so it’s easy to alter it to work in a different way or to change its appearance.”

“But there’s another sort of flexibility, isn’t there?  What if I want to add another engine, or take off one of the wings and put it on the other side?  I’d end up ruining it.  This plane doesn’t have that sort of flexibility.  And a lot of software out there is like that – it might be bendy, but if you want to add something or move something around you risk damaging it beyond repair”.

“So what we need is another sort of flexibility.”  I then produced my second purchase – a plane made of Lego.

Another sort of flexibility
Another sort of flexibility

“OK, so this isn’t very bendy – but look how easy it is to take an engine off, or move a wing around – and our software is just like that – it’s made from components like Lego bricks and we provide you with a toolset so you can add extra bits of functionality, or move those bits around.”

Then all I had to do was show a couple of examples of both bits of flexibility and then I summed up by showing the models again.  The prospective client loved it, and the other presenters latched on to the analogy when they showed their bits.

We got the deal and there was much celebration.

So whenever I now need to explain something complicated I will simplify it by using an analogy – and wherever possible I try to make it a bit funny.  It may be a story I’ve made up (or that happened to someone), it could be an object as an analogy for a process or a feature, it could be a proverb.  You could use a sporting analogy but just make sure it’s relevant to your audience – a British audience may not understand a baseball story, but similarly a great cricket anecdote stands the risks of bewildering the  Americans…

You can use a more negative analogy to explain their current situation, like stumbling around in the dark or being in a maze, and it’s a great feeling if the client really identifies with it.

The problem is if you can’t think of an analogy you run the risk of confusing the audience or leaving them bewildered.  There’s a great sketch from the British comedians Armstrong and Miller about not using an analogy – catch it here

Plus, the wrong analogy can be disastrous.  I once worked with a man who in the middle of a presentation that had been going quite well suddenly decided to explain a particular function of the software by likening it to a toilet.  OK, we all got the gist of what he was on about but I’m fairly confident that the reason that particular sale went down the pan was because every time the potential client thought about our solution this was the image that came to mind…

Not the right reminder...
Not the right reminder…

Then there was the time we asked our implementation specialist to use analogies when explaining how we made sure the implementation would go smoothly.

We were all on form, analogies were being flung out like confetti – it was going great.

Then it came to his section – he opened with the immortal words “Now we all know implementations can be a nightmare….”

We all felt the energy – along with any prospect of our company getting the order – leave the room.

So to sum up – an analogy, like a picture, paints a thousand words – just make sure it’s painting the right words.