How to write effective analogies for communicating research

Conducting wet lab research is like creating a recipe for a new dish.


But wait, how are these two things remotely similar?


Well, when you’re preparing reagents, conducting experiments, and interpreting your results… wouldn’t you say that these are analogous to getting ingredients, cooking, and then taste-testing your final product?


And when you think about it, research papers AND recipes are both publishable too!

Though, when your research gets more complicated, finding the right analogy for what you’re doing might be more difficult.


But not impossible!


Read on to learn about how you can write analogies for communicating research! 📝



What is an analogy?


An analogy is a descriptive comparison of similarities between two or more different things. Using comparisons helps to explain complex and new ideas by linking them to something familiar.



Why should researchers use analogies?


In the words of Professor Keith S. Taber, Emeritus Professor of Science Education at the University of Cambridge:


analogies are about making the unfamiliar familiar

In other words, for researchers working with the world’s most unfamiliar and complex topics, they can use analogies to:


  • make a complex idea easier to understand for a non-technical audience by likening it to something familiar

  • paint a picture about what you work on, how it works, and why you work on it

  • become effective and adaptable science communicators


So all that good stuff aside, how can you come up with a meaningful and creative analogy? 🤔


thinking hat gif
It’s time to put our SciComm-thinking hats on.


Step 1 of 3: Gauge who your audience is


The first thing we need to consider is your target audience. Because this will influence what choice of words and references would be most appropriate for your analogy.

Remember, we need to connect the unfamiliar to something that is familiar for your audience.


For instance:

  • Cultural references — an analogy referencing American football wouldn’t work very well with an international audience, but one about a more common sport like soccer or tennis might!

  • Historical references — an analogy referencing the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 may not be familiar with more recent generations, but referencing the disaster of COVID-19 might!



Step 2 of 3: Compare different things using metaphors and similes


Now that you’ve identified your target audience, it’s time to get creative.


I find myself often bringing back relics of growing up at school; taking classes in areas I would’ve never thought I’d ever revisit! But then I remembered how fun it was to learn about metaphors and similes — two very important linguistic tools for science communicators.


These words might be familiar to you from English class if you ever studied poetry, but if the memories are a bit hazy then here’s a quick recap!



Metaphors

Saying something IS something else, even if not literally.

i.e. Blood vessels ARE highways in your body.

(By the way, there are some fantastic SciComm podcasts on creating metaphors which we HIGHLY recommend checking out!)


Similes

Saying something IS LIKE something else.

i.e. Red blood cells ARE LIKE cars.


Blood vessel is a highway analogy
Inside each and every one of us, there are tiny little red cars driving around day in and day out!

But how do you come up with a good metaphor or simile for your research topic? Well, start by asking yourself these two questions:


  1. What kind of everyday objects look like my topic? 👀 i.e. “Eyes, across different species, are a lot like camera lenses

  2. What kind of everyday phenomena work in a similar way to my topic? ⚙️ i.e. “Magnetic attraction works a lot like love, where usually opposite personalities tend to attract


Any of these items below for example could be made into a metaphor for blood vessels.


Analogy mindmap

Let’s build on the idea of a highway. You would list what components make up a highway, and if these individual components themselves could be compared to each other. So on and so forth.


You could, for example, make these parallels:


  • Veins and capillaries are like roads — because blood cells travel through them.

  • Blood clots are like traffic jams — because they block the highway, and cause problems.

  • Immune cells are like ambulances and police cars — because they help out our cells, and chase out intruders respectively.


Would you agree that this analogy so far paints a rather vivid picture?


Police chase in our blood vessels analogy
A police chase in our blood vessels!

Food for thought: I would bet that you’re used to saying “Windows” and “Folders” when you’re operating a computer.


folders and windows

But did you know that “Windows” and “Folders” are actually just metaphors for what they were actually called by computer scientists before the 1970’s?


Windows are a metaphor for “Graphical control elements”. These refer to how you view things on a computer, like on a browser or program. Through a window! Who would’ve thought!


Folders on the other hand are a metaphor for “File directories”. Because folders contain, and direct you to... well… files! Duh!


This was coined the Desktop Metaphor, which helped reduce the barrier to entry for using computers by comparing its functions to things you’d find on a desk, or in the home.



Step 3 of 3: Fine-tune the technical aspects of your analogy


Once you’ve thought up the broad similarities between the things you’re comparing, you can further expand your analogy to various degrees of scientific accuracy.


For example:


  • Certain types of immune cells are definitely more like police cars than others. Some, like the dendritic cell, can even capture criminals (pathogens and foreign materials), and then take them back to an interrogation site (the spleen).

  • Some immune cells (certain types of Helper T-cells) are actually more like fire trucks which communicate (via cytokine signalling) to nearby traffic that there’s danger. Then, they can even help put out a fire at a site of inflammation (via anti-inflammatory cytokines).


But inherently because all analogies are simplifications, you will have to find the right balance between accuracy versus ease of understanding. Though, this can depend on your target audience.


tip the science communication scales

Tip the scales depending on what matters more to your audience!


Simplifications can introduce error. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.


John Pollack, who served as the US presidential speech writer for Bill Clinton, who is now a leading authority in wordplay, noted in his TEDx talk that:


You could say that all analogies are wrong but they're still all very useful

So yes, analogies can be wrong. If for example you kept working with the blood vessel analogy, you might run into some “technical” miscommunications like these ones below:


  • Veins and capillaries are technically only one-way roads, as blood flows unidirectionally.

  • While some immune cells can be compared to ambulances, technically they don’t carry our cells back to be nursed at a hospital.


But even if you were to make an oversimplification, people are STILL LIKELY to get what you mean! If that weren’t the case, then movies like Osmosis Jones and long-running series like Cells At Work! wouldn’t be understandable at all!


And also, there’s no shame in admitting the weaknesses of your analogy.

So try your ideas out even if they’re a stretch 👍


For visual learners who prefer to plan things out on paper, we recommend creating a Venn Diagram or perhaps a mind map like this:


Mindmap for a blood vessel is a highway analogy

You can also assess the strengths and weaknesses of your analogy. For this, we would highly recommend sharing your analogy with someone who is familiar with your field, and then with someone who isn’t. They’ll likely give you two very different perspectives that could help you fine-tune your analogy further! Or perhaps you could dedicate part of your lab meeting for a group analogy brainstorming session? Leverage all of that scientist brain power in the room! 🧠


Though we totally understand that coming up with a good analogy can take time. But once you’e got one — I’m sure you’ll use it ALL the time. Consider it as a solid time investment!

Once you’ve got one to work with, it’s time to put it into practice. 👇



Apply an analogy in your research outputs


Have you thought about an analogy that works for your research? Or perhaps you’ve thought of multiple?

Here’s a few instances where your analogy could easily get some mileage:



Find, or better yet create, some images to support your analogy too.


A cool title for a poster versus an even cooler title for a poster

And if you’re up for an even bigger challenge, try to communicate your analogy through:


  • The introduction of your research paper or literature review

  • A story during one of your talks, like the 3-Minute thesis!

  • Coming up with a concept for a scientific journal cover, like the one below!



Though, if you feel like it could work in another scenario, give it a try!


And of course, give it a test run with your friends and family. A good analogy might just be the right way to explain what goes on in the lab while you’re having a dinner table conversation.


Dinner table clapping gif
Even the kids would understand where you’re coming from!

So I’m sure by now you can see the power of this amazing, yet simple, linguistic tool!


And what’s the result? 👇


You’ll become thought-provoking.

Your readers will feel familiar and become engaged with your topic.

And you’ll spark that deeply satisfying “Aha!” moment in all of their minds.👇


“Huh, you’re right that a cell IS like a machine because of all of the different parts!”

“Tectonic plates ARE like those moving walkways at airports because they can move in opposite directions!”

”Atoms DO look like tiny solar systems because of how orbitals work!”


There’s just so much that a simple analogy can accomplish! 🙌



Take-away messages


  1. Analogies help your audience to understand your research by making it feel more familiar.

  2. Use a good metaphor or simile as a base for your analogy.

  3. Break down your analogy into smaller analogies to explain it in technical detail.

  4. Find the right balance between scientific accuracy and ease of understanding.

  5. Use them in your research, and even in your daily life, wherever and whenever you can!


Looking to communicate your research story using your own analogy?


Science can really be communicated more clearly and creatively by using analogies.


Here at Animate Your Science, we love translating your research ideas, no matter how complex, into meaningful stories through our explainer video and video abstract services. Because with just the right analogy, just about anyone can understand and appreciate the incredible work that you do.


Now that’s real impact.


You can watch two of our more recent animations below to get a feel for how your analogy could be brought onto the big screen!


SARS-CoV-2 is a notorious pirate of the seven seas! (Whiteboard animation)


The banking world is like a complex hurdle race! (Motion graphics animation)



If you’re interested in creating a similar video for your research, get in touch with us and let’s bring your ideas to life!


Until next time!


Authors

Dr Juan Miguel Balbin

Dr Khatora Opperman

Dr Tullio Rossi


Illustration

Alvin Yanga




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