Anyone regularly charged with communicating new or complex information, either via presentation or the written word, will know how difficult it can be to pitch it at just the right level for the intended audience. Pitch it too high and people won’t understand, pitch it too low and they’ll feel patronised.

For a good example of just how to pull this off, try reading The God Delusion, British scientist Richard Dawkins‘ superb critique of religion. Dawkins broaches daunting topics such as quantum theory and the anthropic principle but presents them in a way that is understandable to the layman without ‘dumbing down’. He does this via a fluid, seemingly effortless writing style, plenty of personal anecdotes, some often hilarious witticisms, and best of all, plenty of well-chosen analogies.

Analogy is an essential tool in the communicator’s arsenal, and Dawkins is a master. In attempting to convey just how much science has expanded human consciousness after centuries of religious repression, he uses the image of ‘the mother of all burkas’, a giant black cloak which for thousands of years had only allowed humankind to see the world through a small slit. Over the last few centuries, science has gradually widened that slit, allowing us to understand more about the world and the universe in which we live. And he hopes that, one day, we may metaphorically (or, in the case of those unfortunates forced to wear real burkas, literally) cast off the offending garment and have a full 360-degree view of our universe.

I regularly do presentations on the topic of Customer Retention (in order to set up the context for CRM software demos), and tend to use the ‘leaky bucket’ analogy to convey its importance. When you have a leaky bucket, there are two ways to deal with it – either you keep going back to the tap and filling it up with fresh water, or you simply patch up the hole. Just as companies can either keep looking for new business, or look after the business they already have. No prizes for guessing which alternative is cheaper.

Using an image such as the big burka or the leaky bucket simplifies complex topics, grabs people’s attention, and is more memorable than simply stating the facts as they are, especially when you’re communicating with speakers of other languages. So next time you’re called on to present a complex topic, try and come up with some good analogies – it’s fun for you, and fun (and a lot easier) for your audience!