Monday, February 15, 2010

4 timeliness tests for your analogies

Here's an analogy that's the greatest thing since sliced bread (a 1928 innovation): Using the Andy Hardy movies, circa the 1930s and 40s, to explain what's happening in negotiations on health insurance in Washington.

Time to make your analogies more timely? I'm just sayin'.

I've heard that Andy Hardy reference all my life. "You make the costumes. I'll get the old barn. Let's put on a show!" -- a reference to the pair's propensity to wedge a musical number into any ordinary situation. Trouble is, it's about 30 years older than I am. That didn't stop a source from referencing Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in this NPR story on health insurance.  It's telling that reporter Julie Rovner had to complete the reference in her on-air story  for the person using it (a sign he may have used it once too often) and that the entire analogy was dropped from the web version of the story.

Timeliness is a particular issue with analogies that make use of cultural references: movies, foods we eat, sports, celebrities, fashion and more.  Before you polish up an analogy that makes use of a cultural reference, make sure it can pass these 4 timeliness tests:
  1. The age of your youngest audience members:  One of my trainees, a young scientist, wanted to build an analogy using a scene in "Back to the Future," his favorite movie.  Trouble is, he and the movie are about the same age--and in his audience of scientists in their late 20s and early 30s, only half remembered it or had seen it.   (Mickey who? Judy who?)  Do some math to compare your analogy's age with your youngest listeners, or you'll lose the shorthand nature of the analogy and need to explain it. 
  2. The age of your oldest audience members:  Now scale that measurement upward.  If your audience is older, when did they last learn something about your topic?  How much older are they than the reference you're using?  This point is critical when dealing with fast-moving topics like scientific research. Cornelia Dean's very good guide Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public reminds scientists that anyone over 30 did not learn about stem cells in school.  That means more explaining, not a shorthand reference.
  3. The shelf-life of your analogy.  If you're using today's "it girl" (a 1926 reference to actress Clara Bow, by the way), cellphone wonder, or Facebook meme as your analogy, you won't be able to use it for long.  Make a mental note to replace it after a month or two--or come up with a more enduring example.  This week's trending topic on Twitter may not make the cut.
  4. Your interests versus those of the audience.  My young scientist trainee could recite nearly verbatim the second-to-the-last scene of "Back to the Future."  I own the DVD, and I can't do that--so when he started with, "You know how, in the second-to-last scene....?" his ramp up to the analogy was a dead-end for me. (Ah, there's a nice universal analogy.) Your intense interest may or may not be reflected in your audience. Take a step back and consider just how popular your popular-culture reference will be with them.
Analogies are a great tool in media interviews, presentations, speeches, even one-on-one meetings.  Check their timeliness and you'll make the best use of this explanatory tool.

Related posts:  Read more advice on shaping analogies on The Eloquent Woman blog

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