The Art of Analogy

By David Burda  |  August 24, 2017

Scuba diver in the ocean with an outline of shark

Effective thought leadership often depends on effective use of analogy to simplify the complex.

I write about healthcare a lot. The healthcare delivery system in the U.S. can be quite complex. Or, as the president acknowledged in February, “Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.” Although I’ve been writing about healthcare for 35 years, a day rarely goes by when I don’t learn something new about the system.

Whether I’m writing for a sophisticated healthcare business audience under my own name or ghost-writing commentaries or blog posts for a healthcare business audience under someone else’s name, the challenge is the same: How do you explain a complex healthcare concept, regulation, statute, financing mechanism, technology, etc., in a way to make it meaningful to your audience?

Effectively Explaining Complex Ideas

One of the most effective ways—and one I would recommend to any brand creating thought-leadership content as part of its content marketing program—is to use analogies. Analogies are rhetorical devices that explain complex ideas by comparing them with simple, unrelated ideas.

A poorly constructed one can sink your content. Overusing analogies can sink your content. But nailing the perfect analogy in a piece of content instantly conveys the meaning of a complex idea by comparing with it something completely understandable.

Years ago, I explained reinsurance as having three Thanksgiving dinner guests bring mashed potatoes in case the host didn’t make enough. Have you ever been to a Thanksgiving dinner that ran out of mashed potatoes? It’s a disaster akin to a hurricane for which a liability insurer didn’t buy reinsurance.

The ongoing, seven-year debate over whether to keep, amend, defund, improve, repeal and/or replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—also known as the ACA and Obamacare—has produced a number of memorable analogies as interested parties attempt to explain what’s happening to the law.

Healthcare Example

My personal favorite recently came from Andy Slavitt. Andy is a former Optum executive who ran the Medicare and Medicaid programs as acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the last two years of the Obama administration.

Since he left the position at the CMS, Andy has been a vocal critic of Republican efforts to repeal and replace the ACA with the American Health Care Act, or AHCA, in the House and the Better Care Reconciliation Act, or BCRA, in the Senate.

Both bills would give states more control over their Medicaid programs. Medicaid is the joint state-federal government health insurance program serving the poor and other eligible patient populations. It’s a complex program whose coverage rules and funding mechanisms vary by state but still must adhere to federal regulations.

Andy said: “The plan that recently failed in the U.S. Senate provides ‘flexibility’ to states the same way taking your car away provides flexibility in how you get to work.” Zing! I get it immediately.

Tips for best analogies 

I’ve followed Andy’s his work for years, and the tone of this analogy matches his personality. It’s not out of character. That’s one of a handful of tips I would offer brands that want to incorporate analogies into their content to simplify complex subject matter:

  • Analogies should follow a brand’s voice and tone guidelines. If it’s insightful and professional, keep it insightful and professional.
  • Analogies should match the author with his/her expertise. If the author is known to be knowledgeable about retail sales, use a retail sales analogy, not one about submarines.
  • Analogies should not be too folksy or casual. Don’t be comparing an idea to something left too long in an office refrigerator. Stay classy.
  • Analogies should not talk down to an audience or hint of condescension. They should educate, not insult.
  • Analogies should be able to explain something complex to someone who knows nothing about the topic. Think about how you would explain what you do for a living to your mother.
  • Don’t overuse analogies in a single piece of content. One good one is plenty. More than one tells an audience you’re trying too hard because you don’t think much of them or that you’re writing to entertain yourself, not sincerely educate an audience

My best analogy was one I used to describe the speaking style of a classmate of mine in graduate school. You never quite knew when she was done speaking. Just when you thought she was through and that it was your turn to speak, she would start talking again. I compared her speaking style to a trick birthday candle that relights just when you think it’s out.

If you’d care to share your favorite analogy—one you’ve written or one you’ve read—in your content marketing work, tweet us at @MSPContent. We’d like to share it with our MSP-C followers.

Read next: Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

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