Using Analogies to Power your Presentations

Christine Haas & Colette Ruden

When renewable energy enters the grid, it becomes indistinguishable from other sources of energy, like hot and cold water mixing in a bathtub.

With that simple analogy, the years my husband had spent droning on about his work suddenly came into sharp focus. This is the power of analogies. They provide your audience with a relatable example to strengthen their understanding of a topic, or see it in a new light altogether.

Analogies are particularly powerful for scientific or technical presentations, because they can quickly orient an audience to an otherwise abstract or complicated topic. Not only that, but the vivid language inherent in analogies can offer a welcome contrast to more technical content. There are two easy ways you can weave analogies in your presentation: short analogies and long-form analogies.

Short Analogies

This type of analogy relates to one point or principle within your presentation. The renewable energy example above is one such example of a short analogy, but here are some others:

If an atom were enlarged to the size of a bus, the nucleus would be like the dot on this i.
- Otto Frisch (example from The Craft of Scientific Presentations)

In a digital image, a pixel translates to a tiny square that makes up the image. If you look at an image very closely, a pixel is like a piece of tile in a mosaic.

Long-Form Analogy

This type of analogy is introduced early in the talk, and remains a touchstone throughout. For example, when presenting on coding, the speaker could compare it to baking. Just as we need steps to bake, the computer needs a list of instructions, called an algorithm, to code. Each of the fundamental concepts of coding, like sequencing, looping, and branching, can be related back to the baking example.

Emily de la Peña does exactly this in her blog post on coding. Her example on looping is shown below, where she shows how looping is an efficient way to provide instructions without having to rewrite each step, just as if we used the same recipe to bake three cakes.

Looping provides instructions without having to rewrite each step, like baking three cakes at once versus three separate steps.

Regardless of which analogy you use, remember that a common frame of reference for you may not necessarily be common for your audience. For example, I was working with a group of engineering undergraduate students who were presenting Bernoulli’s Principle to a middle school audience. They used the example of a garden hose and were met with blank stares. The middle schoolers lived in apartment buildings and didn’t have gardens or garden hoses. Not to be deterred, the engineering students tried their example out in another class. But, those middle schoolers lived in a community where gardeners were the norm, so they hadn’t played with a garden hose either.

So how do you handle a situation where your analogy or example may not be as inclusive as you’d hoped? Instead of assuming your audience’s experience, make them co-creators in your content. Ask, “Has anyone ever played with a hose, maybe one you’d use to water a garden?” Probably at least one person will raise their hand. Ask them to explain what happened when they squeezed the hose, and let them share the explanation. Then you can relate it back to Bernoulli’s Principle.

Now that you’ve read a few example analogies, try developing one of your own. First, think about a principle you’ve always had trouble explaining. Next, think about what you could compare it to. Finally, share this comparison with a few people within and outside your field to get feedback.

In the comments, feel free to share an analogy you’ve found successful.

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