Persuasive communication - Presentations

How Analogies Help Sell New Concepts

It's like a horse, only different

In Part 1 of this series, we saw how analogies can play a central role in persuasive business presentations. We’ll develop that thought further in this article by considering how analogies can make it easier for your audience to accept the change you are trying to sell.

In view of the constant change and relentless innovation of today’s economy, one would think that getting people to accept new ideas is easy, but in fact anyone trying to convince someone else to accept a new idea faces three tough obstacles to gaining acceptance. First, the more different something is, the harder it is to understand. Second, our minds prefer the comfort of the familiar and assign greater weight to risk in the risk/reward calculation. Finally, we don’t like being told what to do.

Any one of these obstacles can be poison for your presentation, but the antidote to all three is an apt analogy.

Analogies make things easier to understand. You can’t persuade others if they don’t understand what you’re saying. The mind learns by relating new information to existing information structures, and if you’re presenting highly technical information or introducing a new product that is different from anything the audience is used to, you can save a lot of explanation by building off what they already know. How would you describe a zebra to someone who has never seen a horse?

Analogies also make concepts easier to understand by helping the audience filter out all the relevant information and get to the heart of the matter.

Finally even when your audience totally gets it, the success of your implementation will likely depend on their being able to get additional buy-in from others in their organization. A compelling analogy will arm them with an easy-to-remember message to take to their internal stakeholders.

Analogies reduce perceived risk by making new things seem more familiar. The old saying that familiarity breeds contempt is usually not true. We gravitate toward, and prefer, what is familiar to us. The decision to try something new always involves a mental struggle between risk and reward. Any time we consider something new, whether it’s a product or an idea, we have to contemplate leaving the safety of the familiar for the opportunity of the unfamiliar. If the concept is too different, it’s likely to be dismissed without even giving equal time to considering its benefits.

Evolution is easier for most of us to handle than revolution. Analogies, by definition, work by comparing a new situation to something more familiar. When Apple first came out with a graphical user interface, they could have gone in virtually an infinite number of directions, but they chose to make something completely different seem like something very old and familiar by giving us a “desktop” with which to work.

An analogy lets the decision maker have their cake and eat it too. It provides a safe base in their mind from which they can explore new opportunity.

Analogies lower resistance to your message. As kids, anytime my mother told me something was good for me, I would automatically determine not to like it. Most adults haven’t outgrown that tendency toward reactance, which is why sometimes trying to teach or to sell the benefits of a new idea can backfire if you try too hard. As Churchill said, “I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like being taught.”

As I mentioned in my previous post, analogies, once implanted, work below the level of consciousness to guide the search for information and to bend the stream of thought into a certain direction. The analogy plants itself in the mind and the audience member’s mind does the rest.  In fact, it has been demonstrated that the target audience has a better comprehension of product benefits when the detailed information is left out.[1] It’s like a joke: if you have to explain it, it’s not funny.

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