Analogies are an underused literary device capable of making your words more powerful, popular, and persuasive. In this post, you’ll learn all about them.
Give yourself credit.
You’re a solid writer with good ideas.
But… you feel like you’ve reached a plateau.
People like your writing, but they don’t love it.
They find your content useful, but not essential.
Even your best ideas never seem to catch fire.
And you can’t help wondering why.
Maybe you just have to be patient and wait for your audience to come around.
But then again, maybe it’s not that. Maybe your writing is missing something.
Because when you read the work of your favorite writers, their ideas are so clear, so vivid, so damn easy-to-understand that they light up your brain.
And while you hope your readers feel the same about your writing, you secretly suspect they don’t.
Here’s the difficult truth — you’re probably right. Your writing is missing something.
And it could well be this…
Analogies: The Writing “Power Tool” You’re Too Afraid to Use
Successful writers — whether they’re students acing papers or freelance writers getting paid big bucks to write for clients — have a myriad of tools in their toolbox.
Some of these are like hand tools, like a chisel. Others are like power tools, like an electric drill.
And here’s the thing about power tools. At first, they can be a little scary to use. (You may even have one or two in your garage you’re too afraid to unbox!)
You’re not sure how to hold them properly. You don’t understand what all the attachments do. Sometimes you don’t even know how to switch them on.
But in the right hands, boy, do they get results.
And one of the least used and least understood power tools for writers is the analogy.
Here’s the dictionary definition of analogy:
Coming from the Greek word ‘analogia’, an analogy is a figure of speech comparing one thing to another, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification.
Or, more informally:
When talking about Thing X, you also mention (seemingly unconnected) Thing Y because it has useful similarities.
We use analogies a ton on Smart Blogger. Here are just a few analogy examples:
- Tweaking your blog’s topic is like tuning an old-fashioned radio
- Staying in a job you hate is like being a fish that’s suffocating out of water
- Publishing content over the holiday is like teaching a toddler to swim during a hurricane
- Spreading ideas is like assembling an IKEA table
If you’re a regular reader, you probably remember many of these examples of analogies. That’s because striking images like these tend to stick in your mind.
But despite the power of a well-chosen analogy, many writers ignore them.
It’s almost as if they’re too intimidated to take this tool out of its box.
Which is a shame, because they really should.
Why Analogies Do Twice The Work in Half The Time
Analogies are powerful because they use established ideas to do the heavy lifting of introducing new ideas.
Consider the following two descriptions:
- A four-legged mammal standing about four feet tall at the shoulder, having an elongated head, large ears and distinctive black and white markings.
- A stripey horse.
We’re talking about a zebra here, right? But can you see how the second description is much more concise? It reuses everything we already know about horses to describe a zebra.
(For the record, a horse is not strictly an analogy for a zebra. However, the process of describing a zebra in relation to a horse is like using an analogy.)
Let’s look at three reasons analogies are so powerful for writers:
1. Analogies Boost Comprehension
Analogies help you explain subtle or complex ideas by reference to concepts the reader already understands.
They allow you to establish such ideas without much of the intellectual scaffolding required to build them from scratch.
To give an example, in physics class, the flow of current through an electrical wire is often explained as being like water flowing through a pipe. A thinner wire can take less current, just like a narrower pipe can take less water. Higher voltage is like higher water pressure.
Are water and electrical current the same? Of course not. (In fact, if you mix the two, you could literally get a nasty shock.)
But in this context, they’re similar enough to be useful.
2. Analogies Make the Unrelatable Relatable
Some concepts are easy for the reader to comprehend, but for one reason or another, they can’t easily relate to them.
As a result, your words have a difficult time sticking in their minds.
Solution? Use analogies.
By helping your reader discover unexpected connections and comparisons, you activate their imagination.
As a result, they’re better able to relate to the story you’re telling.
For example, look at George Orwell’s A Hanging. A short story about an execution, Orwell’s tale is one readers may find to be morbidly interesting, but unless they’ve witnessed an execution themselves, it’s a story they’re unlikely to find relatable.
Enter the analogy:
From 'A Hanging' by George Orwell
The well-executed use of analogies can make unrelatable topics relatable to your readers.
3. Analogies Shift Perspective
Years ago, our CEO, Jon Morrow, wrote the following:
In the beginning, your blog is like an empty classroom. Standing in front and giving a lecture is silly, because sure, it might make you feel important, but there’s nobody listening. You’re all alone, and you can come up with the smartest, most entertaining lecture in the history of mankind, but it won’t matter, because no one else heard it.
Here’s the situation Jon was referring to:
Many beginning bloggers bust their guts to create content for their blogs before they have even a small audience. They just assume it’s an inevitable part of getting started and hope that a few readers will eventually drift along. As a result, every week they get up on the podium, pour their heart and soul into their message, and are greeted by crickets and tumbleweeds.
It’s a powerful image, right? A teacher standing in front of a class delivering a lesson to absolutely nobody. How deluded would you need to be to do that?
And yet thousands of bloggers did (and still do) the equivalent every day.
Jon’s analogy invites them to see their behavior in the light of a similar situation, where they can more easily see that their behavior is completely silly.
So if you can get your reader to buy into your analogy, it can be hugely persuasive. Because they’re practically forced to apply everything they know to be true about one situation to the other.
And that can create a major shift in perspective.
How to Find the Perfect Analogy for Any Situation
Finding good analogies can be tricky.
Often the most interesting and effective analogies are the least obvious, and thus the hardest to find.
Inspiration will sometimes save you, but no writer should rely on their muse too often.
Fortunately, a simple process can make finding the right analogy significantly easier.
1. List the Notable Features of Thing X
What simple statements can you make about the thing you’re trying to describe?
So you’re working on your resume during your lunch break, disappearing to take phone calls from recruiters, and generally struggling to maintain normal appearances in your current job while trying to land the next.
What are the notable features of that situation?
Here are some ideas:
- Secrecy — usually you don’t want your colleagues (and certainly your bosses) to know you’re looking for a new job.
- Clandestine meetings — leaving work early to attend interviews and inventing bogus reasons for your absence.
- Feelings of guilt — you feel bad about not being entirely honest with people but don’t see another option.
2. Do a Mental Search for Other Things Sharing Those Same Features
For each of the features of Thing X, try to think of other things that also have those features by asking simple questions.
In this case:
- What other situations require secrecy?
- When else might you need to lie about where you were and what you were doing?
- In what other situations might you feel guilty about your behavior?
The following ideas spring to mind:
- Being a government spy — you certainly have a need for secrecy; you may need to lie to friends and family about where you were and what you were doing at certain times; feelings of guilt could arise from living a double life.
- Arranging a surprise birthday party — you don’t want the birthday boy or girl to find out; you may have to arrange meetings behind their back with other friends, a restaurant, etc.; you may feel temporarily guilty about your dishonesty (even though you know it’s for a good cause.)
- Having an extramarital affair — you don’t want your spouse to find out; you’ll probably lie about where you were to cover up your liaisons; the guilt normally associated with being unfaithful.
3. Test the Analogy by Looking for Other Similarities and Differences
Once you have some possible analogies for your situation, play Devil’s Advocate. Find ways in which the two things are not alike and decide if the differences detract from the analogy.
Taking the first of the three ideas above, one difference is that being a government spy is not a short-term situation, like looking for a new job. With a job search, you either find a new job and move on, or decide to stay.
Is that a distracting enough discrepancy to rule it out as an analogy? Maybe.
But also the fact that being a spy is a job of sorts is an unhelpful similarity. In this case though your bosses do know your secret — that you’re a spy — so that’s potentially confusing for the reader.
What about the second idea — arranging a surprise birthday party? Similar to looking for a new job, arranging a party is a short-term situation, so that could work. But unlike a job search, party planning is not about finding a replacement for an existing thing.
Finally, what about the extramarital affair? You could argue that an affair is more like moonlighting rather than changing jobs — i.e. trying to get some “extra” work on the side instead of quitting your main job. But some affairs do result in a new long-term relationship so maybe they’re not so different.
Also other interesting similarities exist. For instance, consider the consequences of getting caught sneaking around. In the career scenario you could potentially lose your job. If you’re discovered having an affair you could lose your marriage.
So this seems like the most promising analogy of the three. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty good.
But how do you know when you need to keep looking?
3 Simple Clues That You Haven’t Found the Right Analogy Yet
Choosing from several possible analogies is as much art as science, but here are some clues that you haven’t landed on the right idea just yet:
- The two things are different in more ways than they are similar.
- The two things are similar in most ways, but the most prominent feature doesn’t match.
- The thing you’re drawing an analogy with takes too long to explain or is not widely understood.
The acid test is to ask this question:
Is the writing clearer, more persuasive, or more interesting with the analogy than without it?
3 Ways to Turn Your Analogy Power Tool to MAX
As you become more confident using analogies, consider using one of these methods to get even more power:
1. Bring an Abstract Concept to Life
Some ideas are tough to grasp because they’re naturally abstract.
In fact the whole concept of spreading ideas is quite abstract — there’s usually little to see (or hear, or feel) when an idea transfers from one person to another.
And that’s why my post on writing clearly used the analogy of assembling a flat-pack table.
Building a table piece by piece is a much more tangible process, but it has a number of features in common with “building” an idea in someone’s head.
2. Borrow Powerful Emotions From Another Context
Sometimes the benefit of using an analogy isn’t just the knowledge that comes bundled with that other thing, it’s the emotion.
So, for example, if you write for freelancers and you want to talk about the deep frustration of having first-class skills but no clients, don’t simply describe the feelings – use power words to compare the situation to being a superhero who’s forbidden to use their special powers.
Find the right analogy and you’ll conjure emotions more quickly and intensely than a simple description could ever achieve.
3. Lighten the Tone with Humor
Have you ever heard the term “seagull manager” — first coined in Ken Blanchard’s book Leadership and the One Minute Manager (affiliate link)?
Seagull managers fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everyone, then fly out.
Pretty funny, right?
Sometimes a carefully constructed analogy can bring much-needed humor to a dry topic.
Clever analogies like the seagull manager (and its close cousin the mushroom manager) are tricky to construct, which is why this is an advanced technique for power users only.
But if you find you have a gift for them, people could be quoting you for years to come.
The Humble Analogy: Plug In, Power Up, and Take Off
Analogies are one of the most powerful tools in the writer’s toolbox.
Yes, they need careful handling, but if you follow the process above, finding the right analogy should be as simple as using a screwdriver or a saw.
Do it right and you’ll communicate — and educate — more elegantly and persuasively than ever before.
Your popularity will pick up, and that annoying plateau will soon become a distant memory.
So go ahead. Don’t be afraid. Open your toolbox.