explain using analogies

analogies are an effective way of explaining complex topics to non-technical stakeholders.

Analogies are like building blocks for our thoughts. When you use analogies to explain topics you allow your reader to draw on what they already know. By drawing on their existing knowledge, your reader can understand new information faster. They need to learn less new information and can fill-in the gaps in their own understanding using your analogy.

Analogies are a shortcut. Analogies act like a raft over a river, only to be abandoned on the other side. It’s easy to argue that you should build a bridge of understanding – working from the foundations up – until the river can be crossed with complete knowledge. But this is not practical or feasible when working with your non technical stakeholders.

Your product manager does not want to, nor should be expected to, understand the full weight of a technical subject in-order to discuss it. If they did, they would be an engineer. You can use analogies to shortcut this knowledge difference, and give them a scaffolding to build their ideas.

why are analogies so damn effective?

Analogies work through association. They use the associations of a well known topic as a stand-in for the associations of an unknown topic.

Our brains work really well with associations. Connections, patterns, relationships – we need to add meaning to information to make sense of it. Analogies help us add the missing meaning.

Try this question:

Cat is to kitten as dog is to what?

How do you know the answer? You know the answer because you use the associations between ‘cat’ and ‘kitten’. Kittens are baby cats, so your brain knows the answer is a baby dog. This is what happens for your stakeholder when you explain to them using analogies.

This one is a bit harder:

Everest is to Asia, as ___ is to Africa?

In this example, you might not know the answer. But you can probably work it out; the name of the tallest mountain in Africa.

Your stakeholder doesn’t actually need to know the answer, but they can use all the context around the analogy to build their understanding. They add meaning to the information.

analogies are a shortcut to shared context

There are two types of communication;

  • High context communication: the participants have a lot of common knowledge.
  • Low context communication: the participants share little common knowledge.

In high context communication, it’s easy to talk about difficult technical topics. You can use only a few words, and communicate a lot of meaning. There’s already a large amount of shared knowledge that you both draw from.

You understand the cat-is-to-kitten question because we have high-shared context on the names of baby animals.

When you talk to a non technical stakeholder about a technical concept, you are having a low context conversation. This conversation is difficult because you and your product manager don’t have the same common technical knowledge.

If you use analogies in this conversation, you can shortcut from low-context to high-context communication. You use the shared knowledge from the analogy as a substitute for the missing shared knowledge in the topic you are discussing.

What’s the difference between ’the database’ and ‘postgres’?

Postgres is a type of database, like ford is a type of car.

What’s ‘immutable’ and why is that different from ‘mutable’?

Information that’s mutable is like pencil, you can rub it out. If something is immutable, it’s basically sharpie!

In these two examples we exploit the knowledge that we both have, shortcutting to a shared understanding.

no models are perfect, but some are useful

The beautiful thing about analogies is that they are not trying to be a drop-in replacement for ‘full’ knowledge. We are not trying to build a bridge of full-knowledge over the river, we are trying to raft over and immediately abandon our raft.

When you talk with your non technical stakeholders, it’s important they understand the information to help make decisions. But you don’t want to drown them in detail.

You should use analogies to help the high-context communication flow, and shortcut to shared knowledge.