Analogies get a bad rap as metaphor’s literal cousin, boring everyone at the church ice cream social with logical, overprecise comparisons between one thing and another, long after Metaphor snuck out in search of bars to close.
Think again. Analogies can be near-magical tools for the researcher thought leader. The best ones draw power from an electric tension: at one pole, the logical rigor of the research mind; at the other, the poetic power of metaphor to capture non-specialists’ minds. If you want to suddenly, even dramatically open up space for fresh thinking in your audience, you should start thinking out loud in analogy. Here are some great examples:
- Esther Duflo comparing attempts before randomized controlled trials to understand whether anti-poverty aid worked or not the equivalent to medieval doctors curing disease with leeches. People are still complaining that she did it, almost a decade later. Whether you agree with it or not, it launched a new paradigm.
- Scott Rosenberg at Axios recently comparing Facebook to a failing, monarchical state — with quasi-state operations regulating speech; launching its own currency; protecting (or not) users’ safety and ensuring their security; and taxing our attention. Great analogies seem endlessly productive. One of the benefits of Rosenberg’s: it lays bare the exquisite irony of a company that has epitomized Silicon Valley’s arrogance toward lumbering, inefficient government now being forced to function as a state, to “balance tons of competing interests” and “manage complex webs of stakeholders wielding constantly shifting amounts of political power.”
- The pathologist James Zimring in Scientific American last month, elegantly comparing the state of research to the US subprime lending industry of the last decade — each perversely incentivized to produce more and more worth less and less, pushing risk off on others.
What makes these analogies great?
- They’re memorable.
- But they’re not mere metaphor — not just a figure of speech. They serve up an extended analytic lens, a frame for comparison that catalyzes discussion and debate.
- They articulate an unease many have with a status quo, but one that hasn’t been articulated nearly so vividly.
- Finally, the analogies each invest the problem they’re highlighting with urgency — it must be solved, lest this situation end up like that one.
Everyone’s heard the cliche about the need to become a T-shaped expert, one who goes deep into one subject but who also draws from other disciplines to increase her analytic power and relevance. I’ve always thought that image was better rhetoric than guidance — which other disciplines will complement my specialty best? How does one decide how to invest one’s limited time?
But great analogies are specific, T-shaped interventions — expressions of your creative ability to see connections and patterns, and to help others see them as well. They change conversations. They can easily become memes, as Duflo’s did, as Zimring’s promises. And they’re one of the best ways to build your authority and that of your research-driven organization.
You need to write a lot for non-specialist audiences to develop convincing analogies. They’re extended arguments, not cheap shots. They need to hold water all the way through. But because you’re a researcher or run a research-driven organization, and you know the value of rigor, I’d bet on you.