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Content Under Pressure

Harnessing the Intuitive, Persuasive Power of Analogy

By Susan Kostal

We all struggle with conveying complicated ideas, whether in spoken or written communication. The issue is particularly acute in the fields of law and medicine, where professionals work to explain issues and situations in which the audience typically has far less understanding than the professional — and where time is of the essence. Well-constructed analogies are particularly effective in these situations.

Why Use an Analogy?

Analogies perform these vital functions:

1. Analogies make the most of the information your audience does understand, allowing them to make decisions about a particular issue without knowing every aspect of the problem or the solution. They make what seems abstract more concrete by relating ideas to a subject the audience does understand.

2. Analogies allow people to come to an understanding of an issue on their own, rather than being lectured to or told what to do. This leads to higher levels of engagement, greater buy-in to the solution of choice, and adherence to implementation of the agreed-on plan.

3. Analogies are highly memorable. I still remember a very short analogy my pediatrician shared when my first child was an infant, and she’s now in grad school. It was so effective, I’ve used it to understand many other situations since, both personally and professionally.

3. An analogy can employ humor, as well as break down defenses, in a socially acceptable way. And this allows your audience to better understand a position to which they may be opposed. For example, listening to a news report on the health care insurance debate, which fires my emotional brain, I heard a Republican lawmaker employ this analogy: “It’s like being in the back seat with Thelma and Louise. First, you have to get out of the car.” I may not agree with him, but I understood that the “repeal and replace” camp was just as terrified as I was, putting us on at least some common ground.

According to Copyblogger, most of the persuasive power of analogies comes from the audience arriving at the intended understanding on its own, thus analogies’ significance in philosophy since classical times.

A Harvard Business Review article says the analogy makes us better thinkers. “Analogical reasoning makes enormously efficient use of the information and the mental processing power that strategy makers have. When reasoning by analogy, managers need not understand every aspect of the problem at hand. Rather, they pay attention to select features of it and use them to apply the patterns of the past to the problems of the present,” according to “How Strategists Really Think: Tapping the Power of Analogy.”

Sadly, Good Analogies Do Not Spring to Life Like Crabgrass

Good analogies need considerable thought. There are numerous strategies to get your brain moving in the right direction. Consider how you might explain a scientific problem or moral quandary to a middle schooler. What will resonate? This requires a keen understanding of:

  1. What your audience already grasps, and what is important to them.
  2. Their ability to connect A to B when those are dissimilar and the path is far from clear.

If you have doubts, try your analogy out on a select focus group.

The relational power of analogy lies in the fact that it shows that you really want your audience to understand an issue, and have gone out of your way to take time to ensure they have information they can absorb and act on. This almost always instills enormous goodwill, whether in your content, the courtroom or conversations at home. 

Illustration ©

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Susan Kostal Susan Kostal

Trends at Work columnist Susan Kostal is a legal affairs PR, marketing and content strategy consultant. She is a former contributing editor for Attorney at Work and previously wrote a monthly column, Content Under Pressure. Susan has covered legal affairs as a journalist for nearly three decades. You can follow her on Twitter @skostal and view more of her content at

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