The Power of Analogies and Metaphors in Demos and Discovery - Great Demo

The Power of Analogies and Metaphors in Demos and Discovery

The Power of Analogies and Metaphors in Demos and Discovery 

A Never Stop Learning! Article 

“The world is full of hopeful analogies and handsome, dubious eggs, called possibilities.” 

– Mary Ann Evans (pen name George Eliot) 


“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. It’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” 

 – Mark Twain 


“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” 

 – Albert Einstein 


What’s in This Article for You? 

  • A couple of demo and discovery analogies. 
  • Why use analogies and metaphors? Retention! 
  • Why use analogies and metaphors? Understanding!
  • Manufacturing metaphors and accumulating analogies. 
  • Beware the morass of mixed metaphors. 
  • Stories: the best! 

Analogies, metaphors, and similes: Which is which? I was once told an analogous story about a metaphor, or perhaps it was a metaphorical tale of an analogy. Or a simile-like metaphor? In any case, as Steven Wright once quipped, “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it…!” 


Demos Can Be Like…

A stunningly awful demo is like being stuck for an hour listening to music that you loathe: You can’t wait to leave the venue! 

On the other hand, a great demo is like enjoying a delicious meal: Just the right flavors, textures, colors, scents, timing, and just the right amount of food! 

Discovery Can Be Like…

For many prospects, discovery calls often feel like an inquisition, answering question after remorseless question about speeds, feeds, and needs tonelessly recited by vendors from a never-ending list! 

In contrast, well-executed discovery conversations are an engaging, mutual learning experience, like a first meeting with someone who becomes a lifelong friend. These are dialogues where both parties are mentally stimulated, and curious, and are often sad to see the discussion end! 

Well-crafted analogies and metaphors help our audiences understand and remember the key ideas we present in our demos and discovery conversations. How does this happen? 

Why Use Analogies and Metaphors? Retention!

Facts are boring, whether new or old, and they aren’t memorable on their own. Here’s an example: Crows fly at about 25-30 mph (40-48 km/h). Not particularly noteworthy on its own, is it? 

However, when you tie that fact to an existing, already-known concept, it can be understood and retained much better. Let’s try this again: Crows fly at about 25-30 mph (40-48 km/h). 

As you read that, this time you probably (and almost automatically) compared that speed to other moving objects that you already know. 25-30 mph (40-48 km/h) is close to the typical speed of a car driving in a residential or built-up area (well, according to the speed limit signs!). 

Analogies and metaphors leverage existing memories, concepts, and relationships, making the new ideas much more memorable. Our crow’s speed is analogous to the speed of an automobile traveling through a residential or built-up area. 

If you simply present your capability (a “fact”), typical audiences don’t retain it. Facts by themselves are flat and lackluster; they don’t stand out. They are unremarkable and are correspondingly difficult to remember. In traditional demos, at best you can expect your audience to remember only 30% of what is presented! 

Analogies and metaphors that leverage existing concepts are far more “sticky,” forming memories that last longer and are easier to recall than facts. 

Here are some examples I’ve heard in demos and discovery conversations, with the fact presented first, followed by the analogy or metaphor. First specimen: 

“We have a broad range of reports.” 

Nothing particularly remarkable here, is there? A different vendor offered: 

“You can choose from a broad range of reports. It’s like having a supermarket of reports, including fresh meats and fish, arrays of vegetables, rice and pasta, eggs and dairy, exotic canned goods, chips, and cookies. If you need it, your desired report is likely here. Bring your shopping list!” 

“…A supermarket of reports…” Much more memorable! 

Another example: 

“You can set search filters to find exactly what you need.” 

Boring and unremarkable. Now, here’s an analogy that is a bit more, um, pointed: 

“People talk about how hard it is to find ‘a needle in a haystack.’ Well, this search capability is like a powerful magnet precisely extracting that iron needle in a fraction of a second…! Haystack of data? No problem!” 

“…A powerful magnet…” I want one of those…! 

Another example, for software that automates various workflows: 

“We automate your manual processes…” 

ZZzzzzzzz…. Here’s an alternative, nicely “crafted” description (I know the author)! 

“It’s like the difference between a team of workers laboring with hand tools, slowly building cabinets and fixtures vs equipping your team with state-of-the-art computer design driving integrated power tools. They not only produce beautiful works in a fraction of the time but also improve the craftsmanship and quality!” 

“…State-of-the-art computer design driving integrated power tools…” Wow! 

Finally, an example from my distant past, with respect to applying combinatorial chemistry and high-throughput screening to pharma and materials science research. We would say while holding up a 384-well micro-titer plate as a visual aid: 

“It’s like doing a year’s research in the palm of your hand…!” 

Facts are boring and unappetizing. Spice up your demo and discovery descriptions with a generous seasoning of analogies and metaphors. Make it a memorable meal…! 

Why Use Analogies and Metaphors? Understanding!

Have you ever found yourself struggling to explain what a new technology enables to non-technical people (including some executives)? Did you ever get frustrated when they didn’t “get it?” 

The “…a year’s research in the palm of your hand…” example above was the starting point for introducing a ground-breaking technology. We were offering systems that enabled scientists to complete the same number of experiments that traditionally consumed a full year in one to two weeks. 

Our prospects often had a hard time embracing this possibility, so we generated and used a few analogies: 

  • “It’s like changing from hand tools to power tools driven by computer-aided design software.”
  • “It’s like a large food market moving from a single check-out counter to having dozens. Your throughput increases and your customers are much happier when their waiting time drops down to nearly nothing!”
  • “It’s like a winery upgrading from filling a single bottle at a time to doing eight cases (96 bottles) simultaneously, including corking and applying the labels. Think about how pleased the winery team is going to be when they finish bottling in a single day vs taking weeks, and how delighted their customers will be when that enchanting wine is made available more broadly!” 

These analogies leverage existing concepts to make new ideas accessible. So, analogies and metaphors improve both retention and understanding. The next question is, “How do we put them together for our offerings and prospect situations?” 

Manufacturing Metaphors and Accumulating Analogies

Some people can generate effective analogies and metaphors as needed, on the fly. Other folks may want to have a handful of prebuilt and tested examples to draw from. 

If you are in the first group, congratulations! Your job is to generate, test, refine, and share the most successful specimens with your team. 

For those of us in the second group, we need to use our eyes and ears to identify and capture engaging examples. Professional songwriters often keep notebooks handy to jot down interesting lyrics and melodies, so they don’t forget them. We can do the same for analogies and metaphors! 

  • Any time you hear a terrific metaphor or analogy, write it down and include the context.I watched with delight as a presales person used two plastic water bottles to model the impact of siloed data: When closed, there was no way to bring the data together, but when opened, they could be poured together into a cup, combining the information in ways that were previously impossible. Ahhh, refreshing!
  • Collect promising candidates from your reading and listening. From books and articles to podcasts and webinars, any time you come across something you like, capture it.
  • The web has numerous sources for metaphors and analogies, from simple examples to famous quotes. Take a look!
  • Poll your colleagues (particularly those who can create them on the fly). At your next team meeting ask, “Is anyone using any particularly effective analogies or metaphors?” It is likely that one or more of your team have some great ones! 

When you actively listen for metaphor and analogy candidates, you awaken your brain and sharpen your focus. Imagine chatting with colleagues in a bar where a jazz band is playing softly: It’s the difference between ignoring the music vs realizing that the group is good and leaning in to listen intently to the sweet, sultry sounds of the sax! 

Once you have captured examples you want to apply, here are some tips for daily use: 

  • Like so many things in the Wonderful World of Discovery and Demos, practice is important! Rehearse your new analogies and metaphors in dry runs and role-play sessions. Get feedback from your peers on how they resonate and get comfortable with your delivery.
  • Next, test with real audiences and assess the impact. Are people nodding their heads? Does it appear that the ideas resonate with them? One of the best ways to determine success is when you hear your prospects and customers repeat and reuse the analogies and metaphors you shared with them!
  • Next, take a lesson from stand-up comedians: They test new material and if it works, they include it in their act going forward, refining and improving the “bit” with each delivery. And, of course, material that fails is scrapped. You can apply the same methods in your demos and discovery calls as well.
  • Finally, when you have material that really resonates, share it with your colleagues. Make it a virtuous feedback loop! 

What About Stories?

Ah, stories: The most effective communications leverage the power of stories. Archimedes noted: 

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” 

One might observe that where facts are the world, and analogies and metaphors are the fulcrum, stories are indeed the lever! 

If your demo or discovery conversation is like a sixty-foot high-rise building, facts occupy the lower floors, with respect to memory and retention. The view is blocked and limited by surrounding structures, and the air is full of dust from the adjacent streets. Analogies and metaphors find comfortable lodging in middle levels, enjoying improved views and fresh air. Up top, effective stories reside in the penthouse suites, experiencing sweeping vistas and stimulating breezes! 

Chip and Dan Heath identified and characterized the key principles of stories and storytelling in, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.” This terrific book should be required reading for anyone in a customer-facing role. 

For a pragmatic guide on how to apply stories in your demos and discovery calls, see Chapter 14 in the Third Edition of Great Demo! 

So far, we’ve explored examples and methods to generate, capture, and apply metaphors and analogies in our customer-facing interactions. Let’s take a brief detour to examine what not to do! 

Beware the Morass of Mixed Metaphors

This section is designed to be both informative and fun! 

Metaphors and analogies are terrific but can be risky if applied haphazardly. Mixed metaphors can be more distracting than useful, particularly if your audience focuses on trying to “decode” the metaphor as opposed to achieving understanding. 

Mixed metaphors (and awkward analogies) cause confusion, not clarity. Where great metaphors and analogies serve as smooth, paved highways to comprehension, mixed metaphors are like trying to navigate a trackless swamp, struggling step by step through a murky, muddy quagmire! 

Here are a few sadly amusing examples of mixed metaphors for your inspection: Vote for the worst or best, depending on your point of view! These are all real, captured from various demo and discovery recordings, blogs, and articles: 

“All too often we relegate the demo to the ‘been there, done that’ corner, content to put into practice all of the tired, tried, and possibly true techniques that will get us in the door but see us coming up short when it comes down to closing with confidence and power. Today we’ll examine some of the practices that can be tossed out with tomorrow’s trash, and look at ways to pump up our demo game.” 

This mixed metaphorical mélange starts in a corner, moves to the door, then gets tossed and finally pumped. A busy afternoon! Next? 

“While it may seem like good sense to cover all your bases, throwing too much at your prospect actually weakens your message. Even a short diversion from focus can confuse the issue and cause your prospect to tune out during an otherwise stellar case. You make your prospect do all the work of picking out and remembering the most relevant pieces.” 

“Cover bases, throw too much…” OK, so far so good, but then the baseball analogy gets rained out under a downpour of “…focus, tune out, stellar case, picking out pieces.” Next candidate? 

“With these ideas in your back pocket, you can break through to the toughest of clients and keep your organization firing on all cylinders no matter how much of a time crunch you are in.” 

Brief, but packed! “Back pocket, breakthrough, fire on all cylinders, time crunch.” I think this is the winner so far. And I really want to see someone breaking through with their back pocket while firing on all cylinders, don’t you? Ready for another? 

“And like the U.N. Security Council Members, it only takes one veto to kill an entire deal. Because of the proliferation of stakeholders needed to approve a deal to get it off the ground, a sure thing can become dead in the water long after the sales cycle seems over.” 

Better equip the Security Council with both wings and fins! Another? 

“Our reps use our … platform which provides the toolset they need to spread your compelling sales message and get those who buy in the wiggle room they need for others to sign off on their decision.” 

This one mixes a bad case of rampaging pronouns with toolsets and wiggle rooms! One more? 

“Modern decision-makers have a million things to take care of, so even a small objection or a momentary scheduling snag can threaten to eject them out of your funnel as their plate fills up with other priorities.” 

Wow, just breathtaking! The moral? Choose your words carefully and build your metaphors thoughtfully. 

Interestingly, ChatGPT (and its brethren) will generate mixed metaphors, depending on the nature of the prompts. For now, have a human proof the final drafts! 

A Metaphorical, Analogous Summary

The strength of memories is like a spider web: the more attachments and connections, the stronger the web. A fact is like a single strand attaching an idea to a single support. It’s a tenuous connection, easily blown away by weather or other disturbances.  

Analogies and metaphors build a more memorable structure by linking more strands, connections, and supports. They can weather the storm much more successfully than facts alone.  

Finally, stories offer the stoutest components, embedding your idea in a complete web to secure the memory against the wind and weather of time. 

I hope this article stimulates you to produce sturdy silk to spin your web of concepts! 


Copyright © 2024 The Second Derivative – All Rights Reserved. 

To learn the methods introduced above, consider enrolling in a Great Demo! Doing Discovery or Demonstration Skills Workshop. For more demo and discovery tips, best practices, tools and techniques, explore our books, blog and articles on the Resources pages of our website at and join the Great Demo! & Doing Discovery LinkedIn Group to learn from others and share your experiences. 

1 thought on “The Power of Analogies and Metaphors in Demos and Discovery”

  1. Julien Quester

    Great Stuff. I´m not hyped on AI ; yet, I would say that Digital Assistants are pretty good at creating analogies and metaphors. One thing that they can´t hallucinate with 🙂 thanks.

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