Ask a simile what it thinks of a metaphor, and it will answer, “Me no like.” Which is a bad joke, but does encapsulate how many of us define a metaphor—as a simile minus the word “like.” The difference is a degree of emphasis. A simile is like a polite vicar bicycling along a country lane, while a metaphor is a firebrand preacher remonstrating from a soapbox. Well, not really, but exaggeration is also a way of making learning “stick.”

The bane of the literal-minded, the blessing of the learner

Analogy lies at the root not only of how we learn but of how we think. Literal-mindedness gets us only so far. “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck,” wrote the poet James Whitcomb Riley, memorably (we remember the duck but not James Whitcomb Riley). Still, plain old ducks can signify other things, such as the fear of loss, as they do for Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, when he asks a cab driver, “You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?” And like a reluctant learner bamboozled by an eLearning course objective, the cab driver replies, “How the hell should I know a stupid thing like that?”

My own experience of using analogy in eLearning is that it’s vital not only so the learner can learn but also so the instructional designer can think. It can even help an organization adjust its own messaging once it sees itself reflected back in eLearning’s truthfully distorting mirror. This is one gift we can offer the client: “to see ourselves as others see us.” And we do it not with the flattery of advertisers, but with the honesty that comes from simply thinking something through. A poor eLearning course fails in the same way that a poor metaphor does: because someone didn’t think it through properly. And at this point, you should be screaming, “Give us an example!”

I’ll give you two.

For instance

In the first, confronted with a giant slab of text on the procedures involved in seeking to resolve staff relations difficulties, I obeyed my knee-jerk ID reaction to devise some kind of click-and-reveal activity—one that would hide as much of the text as possible, at least initially, so that the page looked good. But even with this ruse in mind, I did start thinking—though perhaps more visually than conceptually. What has different stages or compartments, has an element of risk to it, but eventually has a good outcome? My answer to my own riddle: a beehive. The different stages of the procedure could be represented by five honeycomb frames; the element of risk or difficulty (staff relations can worsen as well as improve) was the threat of being stung; and the good outcome—the resolution of the difficulty—was the honey. I had my metaphor, and the giant slab dissolved into a gloopy amber.

But something wasn’t right. I tried this idea out on two of my colleagues, and as I attempted to explain it, my confusion grew. Is the process of making honey really like the process of resolving difficulties? In this analogy, who is the beekeeper? Is there a queen bee? How could identical-looking frames represent the differences between the various stages of resolution? So I scrapped the idea (though I retain the right to use it in a different context; the first rule of ID is, nothing gets wasted) and went with the brilliant suggestion that staff relations difficulties are like knots that have to be unraveled. This took me back to childhood, to my brother’s magic set and his rope tricks—no matter how complex-looking the knot, he could always pull it straight. So, as resolution fails to be achieved and the procedure moves to its next stage, the rope becomes more and more knotted. A simple click-and-reveal, but with a twist.

Another example. I was writing a storyboard for a client regarding organizational culture change. My source material spoke of “pains and gains”—the pains that the client’s customers experienced and the gains that its products would bring. But how to visualize “pains”? Surely not with instruments of torture! My unease at a visual level extended to the verbal realm: After all, the phrase “pains and gains” evokes the ’80s exercise motto “No pain, no gain,” in which pain is a positive. But there was no positive association with these pains. I brainstormed a possible interaction with a colleague, and we came up with the idea of representing gains in terms of gaining height, which allowed us to substitute “drags” for “pains.” Abseiling(rappelling) came to mind at first, and then paragliding, which seemed visually more appealing. Checking the suitability of paragliding as a metaphor, I knew we were on to something: Air is both a drag on paragliders and the thing that lifts them up, so substitute “culture” for “air,” and we were on our way. I explained the metaphor rather tortuously in this sentence (simplified in later drafts): “Just as paragliders need the air to rise faster than they sink, so companies can find their performance dipping if their culture languishes, uninvigorated.”

There is always a risk when you take a client’s source material and adapt it by using analogy. Some clients will reject metaphors that don’t relate, literally, to their line of business. Fortunately, in this case the client was more than receptive in the course review, writing, “Have discussed with the team and really love the metaphor of reducing drag to gain height. In fact, it’s so good we are changing our terminology for the value proposition for all the other products we have.” Which is the kind of comment that is like manna from heaven to an ID.

Putting it another way

Those of you who prefer lists and rules to rambling would do well to read Sister Misty’s blog at eLearning Brothers, in which the benefits of using analogies in eLearning are summed up as follows:

  • Analogies speed up comprehension and reduce learner frustration
  • Analogies provide visualization that boosts retention
  • Analogies can easily become interactions
  • Analogies can change perception
  • Analogies can provide role reversal that produces empathy

There are a few cautions listed in the article:

  • Your analogy must make sense
  • Your analogy should fit within a context
  • Your analogy should be easy to understand
  • Use sparingly

I could add: “Don’t get so caught up in devising a beautiful analogy that you lose sight of the information you are trying to convey.” In truth, though, this is less a danger than its opposite: dreary, featureless learning that no one remembers.

The paragliding metaphor somewhat breaks the “easy-to-understand” rule of using something familiar to explain the unfamiliar. But you don’t need to be a paraglider to grasp the concept—anyone who’s been swimming understands that the medium you move through can both keep you afloat and drag you down. And since the organizational change being described is about taking you from the familiar existing culture of an organization into a new, not-yet-familiar culture, the comparison seemed apt.

For a metaphor to work, not every aspect has to be analogous. You could overthink anything and find as many differences as similarities (or more). Give a metaphor enough rope, and it will tie you in knots. But a good metaphor will feel right as well as satisfy the intellect.

Understanding Blackstar

I wrote in an earlier blog how my interest in language grew alongside my love of music. Well, one of the master songwriters and performers who influenced me back then has recently died. David Bowie was a master of metaphor—as well as so much else. As Neil McCormick pointed out in a tribute in the Telegraph, “The lost Starman is a metaphor Bowie played with throughout [his] career.” When the reviews of Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, appeared, reviewers pondered what it was that seemed so threateningly ominous to Bowie; one speculated that it was the rise of Islamic State—an overt political reference that struck me as uncharacteristic of this artist. Of course, when we all discovered that Bowie had known for over a year that he was going to die, then the metaphor of the black star made perfect sense. But that is part of the richness of analogy: It allows for subjective associations and interpretations. Learners will respond to this richness—as long as you don’t over-egg the pudding. Metaphor’s very best friend is plain statement.

In his early days, Bowie was something of a disciple of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who once wrote: “Every concept is generated by equating unequal things.” Just think about that. The use of analogy isn’t about adorning the learning: It is learning, itself.