Periodically, I watch episodes of the TV show “Numb3rs” on Netflix just to pretend that I’m a math genius. My friend and I have made an inside joke about one particular writing technique the show has used to help dull audience members like myself understand the math technique they are about to use.
We mouth “It’s like….” to each other whenever a character mentions some obscure math approach, and then we wait for the characters to launch into the illustration.
Moving past the hilarity of that particular video on so many other levels, you can see how the writers of that show made the math geniuses spout off the math technique they were going to use and then follow immediately with a more understandable example the lay person could grasp.
I appreciate these more understandable illustrations.
Branching Your Ideas
The “what if” and “it’s like” writing techniques are a kind of “branching” approach to both idea generation and reader understanding. Following an idea down a singular path is a way to get things done, but it’s not a way to generate future ideas or think creatively.
For example, when I set out to write about content marketing game theory for this blog (and was hopelessly out of my element, believe me), I decided to branch out in a couple of directions so that I could better understand the topic as a writer and, perhaps, better explain the topic to the reader. By branching my idea and asking “what if”, I managed to come up with two examples (“it’s like”) for readers. Only by branching and traveling down various paths to see where they might take me was I able to do this.
Some content marketers prefer to have one idea and shoot straight for the finish line; that’s perfectly acceptable. But others, like myself, enjoy the happy accidents that occur when you allow your ideas to branch.
Don’t be afraid to branch out; you won’t be left out on a limb. (rimshot)
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Using “What If” To Generate Ideas
The “what if” writing technique is usually something used by fiction writers to help them develop characters and plot, but it can still be helpful in a slightly different version for content marketers.
Let’s use that game theory post of mine as an example. As I researched the topic more and more, the idea of a tree came to mind.
What if I approached this as if it were a tree? I wondered. I was struggling to understand the topic in a way that allowed me to explain it, but the tree idea seemed to have promise. Then I set about to talk about matrices and competitors. What if I used “The Fugitive” as an example? It was a popular movie and seemed to fit perfectly.
There were a few other “what if” approaches that led to dead ends, but by the time I finished with these two, I understood much better what I wanted to say in the rest of the post.
Here are a few “what if” approaches you could use when writing blog posts. You can see they are much more than just about finding ideas, but also about the order and structure of the actual post, too.
What if (I):
- Put the conclusion at the beginning?
- Used a recent hit movie as the foundation for this post?
- Played the devil’s advocate until the final conclusion?
- Said the exact opposite of what is expected/I believe?
- What was true was not true?
- Used a different search engine/resource?
- Learned how it was done five years ago?
- My blog could speak for itself?
Sometimes silly questions lead to fresh ways of thinking about a common thing, even if the answer to the question itself is irrelevant to the branch you ultimately end up on.
The “what if” writing technique is definitely part of your brainstorming toolbox when it comes to finding ideas. It helps you write beyond the typical boundary and find research you otherwise wouldn’t have considered looking for.
Using “It’s Like” To Explain Ideas
Using the “it’s like” writing technique will help you do three crucial things with your content:
- Understanding: Obviously, the “it’s like” approach helps your reader understand an idea in a different way. It’s a classic method teachers use.
- Hook: The “it’s like” technique can also grab your reader’s attention if you approach this method with a certain level of non-conformity and use comparisons the reader doesn’t expect.
- Convince: When you’re selling a new idea or product that is unfamiliar to your audience, there’s a barrier you need to overcome. Using “it’s like” and explaining it as something familiar helps reduce that barrier and make it easier for a reader to buy into what you have to say.
But first: If there’s one thing you don’t want to do on social media, it’s misuse the words “metaphor” and “simile”; the grammar police will correct you. Metaphors simply make a comparison, while similes use the words “like” or “as” to compare things.
I tend to think of metaphors as all about making a strong statement with language (it’s not like something, it is something), while similes are all about helping readers understand a bit more gently.
Using “it’s like” is the simile approach to explanation, though you are taking it a bit further than a simple simile comparison most of the time. If you’re following the lead of the writers in the show “Numb3rs”, you are looking for an in-depth explanation that matches ounce for ounce the concept you want your reader to comprehend in their own terms.
You are looking for an analogy.
Similes can spice up your copy and create a playful collection of words that pique a reader’s interest, but analogy is the true workhorse of the “it’s like” writing technique, a kind of extended version of a simile.
When creating analogies, remember:
- Your audience matters. Analogies work best when you use an example that your audience understands. I could use a variety of farming analogies that I know from growing up on a farm, but most of the readers of this blog aren’t farmers. That kind of analogy won’t help at all. Knowing what experiences your audience will identify with is crucial when choosing a simile or analogy.
- To make things better. Not all complicated topics need an analogy; some just need to be clearly discussed. Analogies work best when a topic is so far out of the range of your audience, either through lack of knowledge or because they’ve never experienced it, that the only way to make the concept resonate is to repackage it with the familiar. Sometimes I write analogies and then eventually edit them out and the reader never sees them. Yet by writing that analogy, I helped myself understand the topic better and was able to explain it better without the addition of an analogy.
- To shed light on the larger concept. Some topics are better served simply by breaking them down into bite-sized chunks than through analogy. You would better understand the process of changing the oil in a car if I explained the actual process step-by-step rather than me saying, “It’s like cleaning files off your hard drive.” Analogy is less useful in teaching step-by-step instruction (i.e. how to specifically change the oil in your car) and more useful in teaching the larger idea that those step-by-step instructions make sense in (i.e. you need to change the oil because your engine will be ruined if you don’t).
- That less is more. Use one or two analogies, but don’t use too many more. Lots of analogies make things more confusing and actually dampen the power they might have if you used them more sparingly. Consider what you absolutely want your reader to take from your content, which topic is difficult or unfamiliar, and use your analogies for that.
- You don’t leave your audience with the analogy. Once you’ve explained a concept through an analogy and your audience understands the underlying fundamentals, you should go back and reiterate what you wanted them to understand in the first place, drawing direct comparisons between the analogy again if needed, so they understand the actual topic and the analogy.
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Analogies are all about helping your audience experience a moment of Gestalt, where they finally “get” the bigger picture of something that was confusing before.
So, how do you find the perfect analogy?
- Figure out what the main point is. Ask yourself what the most important thing is that you want your reader to understand about your topic. There is a lot they could understand, but what is the most important concept that you need them to take away in order to understand the rest of what you have to say? You could probably compare just about anything to everything, but you need to find something that gets a specific point across. Life is like a box of chocolate, is like a beach, is like an oyster, is like anything at all—but what is it you’re trying to say about life?
- Keep it mostly (but not too) familiar. As I mentioned above, your audience has to be familiar with the analogy you are about to use or they won’t understand it, either. However, by choosing or using a scenario that is slightly surprising, you’ll keep them interested in reading. We’re all pretty used to the “life is like a box of chocolates” saying by now, but when it first came out with the movie “Forrest Gump”, it was very novel and new. People wondered “how in the world could life be like candy?” and it made them read on. In the book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, author Douglas Hofstadter referred to boring analogies as “banalogies.” Generally, the first analogy you come up with is not the one. Go nuts and think of two or three or ten or twenty, and then choose from your list.
- Turn the distasteful into something good. A great analogy not only explains a concept to help your reader understand, but it can also help them understand something differently. An idea that isn’t appealing from one angle can, with the help of an analogy, look a lot better from a different angle. For example, I’ve gone on record stating that I’m not much of a salesperson. A few years back, though, I was reading a book on selling art which used an analogy to help me see sales differently. Instead of it being an exchange of money for goods or services (which it is, technically, and which seems tawdry at times), the author illustrated how sales is also problem solving (for the customer), an exercise in creativity (finding a market that fits the product), and so on. Through analogy, I was able to see things from a different viewpoint.
- Maintain your desired focus. Analogies can get out of control. If you use sailing as an analogy, for an example, remember what your main point is and keep to it. Avoid veering off into using every aspect of sailing—ropes! knots! wind! boom! tacking!—and stick to just the parts of the analogy that will sell your main point the best. An analogy isn’t an anecdote; it’s a highly persuasive tool that can make the unfamiliar into something familiar. Maintain focus if you want the tool to work.
- Don’t forget the visual. Depending on the content you are creating (e.g. written vs. spoken), you may find a visual helpful as your analogy, or alongside your analogy. In the “Numb3rs” clip, the imagery of the boats helps illustrate what the actress is saying. We visual learners appreciate it!
For Fun:Which of the following similes would you love to see expanded into analogy? Why do some stand out for you and not others? Which ones make you curious enough to keep reading? Which could be used to clarify a particular aspect of content marketing? Run with them in the comments if you’d like to take a crack at it.Content marketing is…
- Like a box of old pencils.
- A camera without film.
- Like a movie without credits.
- Like a buoy in the Pacific Ocean.
- What happens when polar bears meet penguins.
- Superman with an extra cape.
- Superman without a cape.
October 5, 2015