How not to f**k up when explaining something

Pantry by Fio

I love analogies. They’re one of my favourite ways to quickly communicate complex concepts, especially when the person you’re sharing with has no specialist knowledge in the relevant area.

I also love it when people use them to explain foreign concepts to me. It feels like a gift when something becomes immediately clear.

My favourite analogy is for speaking about the difference between computer hard drive space and memory (RAM) to non-computer people.

They’re like the pantry and bench space in your kitchen. The pantry is for storage and the bench is for working.

It’s great to have a big pantry to keep all of your ingredients, but if you want to cook, what you really need is lots of bench space.

Bench space is the key to getting things done quickly, because you can get out everything you need and have it to hand, when you need it. If you’re cooking without bench space, then any time you need an ingredient, you need to go to the pantry, find it, get it out, use it and then put it back in the pantry. It works, but it’s slow as fuck. It’s the same for computers without much RAM. They don’t have much bench space, so cooking is a slow and laborious process no matter how big their pantry is.

It’s good analogy in that I’ve used it to help a lot of people understand those concepts, but is it actually a good analogy? Are the concepts actually analogous?

And here are the problems:

  1. In order to understand if an analogy is any good. You have to know enough about the subject that you don’t need the analogy.
  2. You don’t have to understand the subject in order to come up with an analogy which seems to explain it.
  3. Analogies are a brittle, narrow snapshot – not a full landscape. When you look at subject X from this point of view, it’s a little like subject Y from this point of view. If you change the point of view (and we frequently want to), then the analogy is often no longer valid, but that’s not immediately obvious.

And these are problems because:

  1. None of the people to whom I’ve talked to about pantries and bench space know if it’s a fair explanation unless they’ve subsequently done the work to understand more about computers.
  2. I developed the analogy to let me think about computers in a simple way, because I hadn’t done the work to understand them fully. Because the analogy made sense to me, I assumed it was a accurate explanation, but they are not the same thing. Just because it looks neat, doesn’t make it an accurate or fair representation.
  3. The analogy only holds up (or seems to – remember, I haven’t done the work to know if it’s any good) if you’re using it to talk about the relative differences between and uses of RAM and hard drive space. It can’t necessarily be stretched to accommodate other factors (cost, power usage, clock speed). And if you do choose to apply it to a different context, it won’t let you know that it’s become inaccurate.

It has no analogy warning light.

Analogies we hear, might be neat and poetic, but until we do the work to understand what’s behind them, they should be treated as opinion rather than a representation of fact.

Analogies we make, when we haven’t done the work to have a proper opinion are doubly dangerous. Now there are two parties who potentially have a bad, broken way of explaining something important and complex – and no idea about how wrong they might be.

This isn’t to say that I’m going to stop using analogies any time soon -they’re my conversational multitools – just that I might stop using them as a substitute for doing the work to have an opinion.

BTW – You’re never as aware of the importance of context until you realise that someone could take a 3 word, verbatim quote from the beginning of your piece about language, and accurately, but unfairly assert that you started said piece with the statement “I love anal”.

Post photo by Fio