Simple Presentation Tip: The Metaphor


“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” – Charles Mingus

One of the hardest things to do is to take a complicated idea and explain it in a simple way.  But that is in fact what many of us have to do, and those who do it well will find success.  Einstein was a genius not because he theorized about things like mass-energy equivalence (others had done it before him), but because he could distill it down to E = mc².

In the corporate world, we may not be theorizing on the conservation of mass and energy, but we do have to give recommendations, pitches, and reviews.  And often the subject is far from simple (ever have to give a detailed presentation on a computer model that simulates consumer trends?).  So how do you simplify a complex topic? Simple: Metaphor.

The Metaphor

A metaphor is to presenting as a dashboard is to driving a car.  A good metaphor simplifies a topic and improves understanding, just as a dashboard simplifies information about a car and improves the driver’s ability to drive the car effectively.  I know I’m a better driver because I can just look at my speedometer and not try to calculate my speed by dividing distance by time.


Why Use Metaphors

But why even use a metaphor in your presentation?  Why not just require everyone to learn the MPH (or KPH) calculation?  After all you had to learn it in order to create the dashboard.  But that’s often our job, to simplify, even if not expressed explicitly.  If my job is to recommend a new reporting system, I have to make that recommendation in a way that will best explain my proposal and clearly articulate it’s value to my managers.  If the buyers don’t understand it, why would they buy it?

Does it mean extra work on your part? Definitely.  But the reward for doing so is success; you’ll improve retention and understanding because not only are you explaining the topic in a way that people understand, but you are also doing it in a unique, memorable way.

And while you could just show a single slide in your presentation or single paragraph in your proposal of your metaphor, the true simplification and power comes from extending that metaphor throughout the entire presentation, integrating it into each of the complex details.  Then, at the end, if the audience understands the concept of a dashboard, they also understand the value of metaphors in improving presentations.

The Metaphorical Payoff

The value of a great metaphor is that it can summarize your entire presentation in a single concept.  It can encapsulate everything you are trying to say in a single place, simplified and holistic, like a dashboard in a car that displays relevant information that makes driving easier.   The benefit is two-fold: it requires you to fully understand your idea enough to state it simply, and it allows people to walk away with an analogy in their head–“ah yes, metaphors in my presentations are like the dashboard in my car.”

It doesn’t have to be revolutionary; that’s not your goal.  Your goal is to simplify, relate to the audience, and increase their understanding.  After that, it’s up to the idea itself to gain approval, but you’ll have at least have presented in a way that people can understand.

Do you use metaphors in your work?  If so, what are some of your favorite ones you used?  If not, why? Let me know in the comments.

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