Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Etch-a-Sketch tests for your next analogy: 3 fixes to use

The analogy worked so well, it went viral. All over the U.S., people hearing the quote could picture exactly what the spokesperson was talking about, so concrete and easy to understand was the comparison he chose. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

An aide to presidential candidate Mitt Romney uttered those words, prompting endless jabs from his opponents and coining a whole new way to say "flip-flop." Unfortunately it wasn't a well-chosen analogy, just a well-phrased one. Here are three ways analogies can trip you up, and how to fix them before you blurt them out:
  1. When you use analogies to describe very large numbers, extra caution is called for, since most audiences don't have a sense of the number you're using to make the comparison. The Wall Street Journal's "numbers guy," Carl Bialik, writes here about using analogies to describe very large numbers and shares some bad examples, like the website that figured every American adult could buy two pairs of Manolo Blahnik pumps for the cost of the war in Iraq. He notes: "...one popular device is to describe a stack of bills stretching into space." Rather than stack up dollar bills or lay them out in a line a million miles long, don't compound the problem. Make the analogy simple: One expert suggested using costs per person rather than stacked-up cash. Check out Bialik's blog post on this column, which includes links to all sorts of sites that help you visualize numbers and dollars, as well as some real-life good and bad examples of analogies stretching to make big numbers more manageable.
  2. When you haven't tested the analogy, you get the Etch-a-Sketch problem: A facile analogy that unfortunately helps your opponent make a point against you. It's worth it to test your analogies in advance for clarity, brevity and that all-important "Russert test" we do in Washington, turning your words against you as your opponent (or a tough reporter) will do. The test was one used by the late "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert and any guests savvy enough to know it, often after getting hoist with their own petards during a bad experience on the air. In the Etch-a-Sketch analogy, pundits and comics were, by the weekend, pointing out how apt it was for politics, since you can swivel the knobs to the left or the right--and that's just one example of how this analogy could be used against you. 
  3. When your analogy doesn't stand the test of time, you may miss your audience completely by packing an out-of-date comparison that goes right over their heads--in which case, you've wasted precious time in an interview or speech. (The Etch-a-Sketch veers very close to being outdated, saved by the many Baby Boomer users and the fact that it is still manufactured today.) That works in the other direction, too, when you use a current pop analogy that older audiences might not get. Check out my four timeliness tests for your next analogy.
Do you have good--or misfired--analogies to share as learning examples? Put 'em in the comments....

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