Rhetorical Techniques: Sample Analogy
Now that I’m on a Rhetorical Technique roll, here’s a great sample of an analogy I found while reading The Week on the plane to Boston last Saturday in an article by Charles Fishman. The article is an extract from Fishman’s 2011 book, The Big Thirst. It appears in the July 29th Print Edition of the news aggregation magazine called The Week, in their column called “The Last Word.”
This is a paraphrase of the analogy, since I managed to misplace the page I ripped out of the magazine. But the fact that I can remember even a paraphrase of something I read on a plan 10 days ago, when I can barely remember what I ate for lunch these days, shows how effective the analogy is:
The United States uses 5.7 billion gallons of water every day, to flush the toilet. 5.7 billion gallons of water every day. That’s a hard number to get your mind around, so what does it mean? It means that the United States flushes the same amount of water every day that the UK and Canada, combined, use for all of their daily household water needs.
Why is this a great sample?
Because the author is dead on. It’s impossible for the average human being to have any grasp of the meaning of that quantity of water. 5.7 Billion Gallons a day? What does that look like?
By telling us what it means – what it looks like – we can understand the concept and we can appreciate how devastating a number like that is.
Americans flush more water down the toilet every single day than all of the UK and Canada combined uses for all of their household uses? Seriously?
That’s a pretty significant comparison. Enough to make me think about an issue that I rarely thought about before.
And it is a comparision that is guaranteed to have an impact upon its readers (or listeners).
That’s the type of comparison you want to use when talking with an audience about numbers that are incomprehensible. Create an analogy (research your facts and get it right) so that you bring the incomprehensible down to the knowable and relateable in your speech and you will keep your audience with you instead of losing them.
Oh, and the first person to pull out the Antithesis in my prior blog post and note it in the comments below gets a free copy of my Public Speaking for Attorneys DVD (worth $395). I just want to see if you’re paying attention. 🙂
You can find the THISWEEK article online here:
I’m not very impressed by that sample analogy.
First, it is easy to get an apparently incomprehensible number (5.7 billion gallons per day) by multiplying a modest one (18.5 gallons per person per day) by the huge US population of about 312 million.
Second, the comparison with Canada and the UK is slightly bogus since their combined population is only about 95 million.
Third, that 5.7 billion gallons per day can be compared with a another known rate – the summer water flow over Niagara Falls which is 64.6 billion gallons per day. If you’ve been there or seen it on TV 9% of Niagara falls is pretty easy to imagine.
Thanks for taking the time to comment. Sorry it took me a while to approve the comment – I was away on vacation. And thank you for the link to the article. When I tried finding it, I kept getting blocked by not having an online subscription.
I understand what you’re saying and you are correct that a more credible analogy would have had matching population numbers. I struggled with posting it for that reason, but the analogy stayed in my head for a while so I decided to go with it. I should have made that point myself.
I disagree, however, with the idea that the alternative analogy you propose is something people can imagine or would work well for this author, or in a speech. I disagree because:
1) your analogy works against his point :-); and, more importantly,
2) the last thing you want to do when using an analogy is add in percentages, fractions or anything else that needs calculation by the audience for them to compare and comprehend.
The whole point of an analogy is to take something that is hard to comprehend and compare it to something that is easy to comprehend. Trying to visualize what 9% of Niagra Falls looks like is not easy at all. (Maybe it is for you as an engineer, because you presumably work with percentages and numbers all the time, but it is not something I would recommend for an average lay audience).
Lastly, I’d just like to point out that from a communications perspective, you could have more effectively made your point by leaving out the “I’m not impressed” comment. By starting your comment with that phrase, which is hostile, you immediately put people off. A more effective way to communicate the exact same message would be to simply disagree that the analogy is effective and state why, as I did above.
Because non-verbal cues are absent from written communication, it’s critical to present your ideas carefully. These days far too many comments on news sites and blogs are hostile and ugly, and frankly not only is there no reason for that, it shuts down any productive debate.
Again, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m a big fan of Toastmasters (and recommend it at all of my seminars), so it’s nice to see a member reading my blog.