Using Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies to Create Better Training

this-is-like-thatWhat would you do if someone told you something entirely new and you wanted to make sense of it, remember it, and use it later?

For example, say I started telling you about a game you had never heard of. While you’re trying to figure it out, is it possible you might compare the new game to a game you already know? Have you ever done anything like that when you’re trying to learn something?

Even better, would it also help if, while I told you about the new game, I explained how it’s similar to and different than a game you know? For example, if I know you understand soccer, and I’m trying to explain American football to you, would it help if I explained some similarities (it’s played on a rectangular, grassy field; you score by moving a ball down the field to a goal or zone at the other end) and also explained some differences (a soccer ball is round, a football is ovular; in soccer you kick the ball, in football you run with it or pass it; in soccer you score by kicking the ball into a net, in football you score by passing a line at the end of the field, etc.)?

In this article, we’re going to see how using metaphors, similes, and analogies to create better training materials can help your workers understand, remember, and later use new information on the job more effectively.


We Learn By Connecting New Information with Existing Information

People learn and remember new information partly by integrating it with information already stored in their memory.

In fact, “connecting” that new information with existing information makes it easier to understand, retain, and later recall and use that information when it’s needed.

For more about how we integrate new information with existing information/knowledge when we learn, check out our article on How People Learn and Julie Dirksen’s book called Design for How People Learn.

This is important information for a trainer or instructional designer. Your training materials will be more effective, meaning the learners you provide training to will be more likely to use the skills taught in training while on the job, if you help them connect new information in training to information that they already know. To do this, you should intentionally add elements to your training materials that help the learner make this connection. You can think of this as adding “hooks” to the new information that will “hook onto” the existing information.

There are many ways to do this. Three simple, effective, and closely related ones are to include metaphors, similes, and analogies in your training materials. You’ve probably done this from time to time in your own training materials. In this post, we’ll explain just exactly what these are (in case you’ve forgotten from elementary school grammar class) and will give you some tips for using them. If you’re already aware of the value of metaphors and similes, then this will provide a good reminder to use them in your training. We can all use a reminder about best practices from time to time. Or, if you haven’t really thought about this before, you can use this as an opportunity to start doing so.

Learning involves the integration of new content from the instruction into existing schema in long-term memory. Activating prior knowledge in long-term memory that is relevant to the new content will optimize this integration process. Activation of prior knowledge means that existing related knowledge (schemas) in long-term memory is moved into working memory.

Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark, Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement, p. 55

What, In General, Are Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies?

In general terms, metaphors, similes, and analogies are types of comparisons. They each compare something to something else.

What’s a Metaphor?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a metaphor is “a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing in order to show or suggest that they are similar.”

This website, created to teach school kids what metaphors are, has a lot of great examples that make this easy to understand.  Two examples from the website are:

  1. The snow is a white blanket.
  2. The hospital was a refrigerator.

Looking at these examples, you can probably see what a metaphor is and see how a metaphor is used to make a comparison. Obviously, in the first example, the snow isn’t truly a white blanket. But the layer of snow on the ground does share some characteristics with the white blanket–the color (white), laying flat and smooth on the ground, and covering things. And in the second example, again, the hospital is clearly not truly a refrigerator. But, the hospital does have something in common with a refrigerator–most likely, that it’s cold inside.

Notice two things about these metaphors (and metaphors in general).

First, they use one thing to tell me something about another thing. In the first example, the white blanket tells me something about the snow (it could have been black or yellow snow, right?). And in the second example, the refrigerator tells me that the hospital is cold (it could have been a hospital in the American south during summer with a broken air-conditioner, right?).

And second, they draw their power from the fact that I am already familiar with one of the items in the comparison. In the first metaphor, I am familiar with white blankets. I know they’re white, they can lay float and smooth, and they can cover things. In the second metaphor, I know something about refrigerators–in particular, I know they’re cold.

What’s a Simile?

A simile, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a phrase that uses the words like or as to describe someone or something by comparing it with someone or something else that is similar.”

So, again, we’ve got a comparison between two things. In this case, though, the comparison uses the words like or as.

Here’s a website with a lot of examples of similes if you want to see some. Let’s look at two examples drawn from that website (both well known):

  1. The play was like watching paint dry.
  2. The night sky was as black as coal.

If we look at our two similes, we see how they help explain things.

The first simile tells me that the play was like watching paint dry. This tells me that play was boring and nothing of interest happened.

The second similar tells me that the night sky was as black as coal. That tells me it’s very dark.

And, as we did with metaphors, let’s notice two key things about similes.

First, they use one thing to tell me something about another thing. In our examples, drying paint tells me something about the play and coal tells me something about the night sky.

And second, they draw their power from the fact that I am already familiar with one of the items in the comparison. In the first simile, I know that it’s boring to watch paint dry. In the second simile, I know that coal is very black.

Tips for Using Similes and Metaphors in Training

We now know that (1) because similes and metaphors are comparisons, they can be used to compare new information to existing information, (2) people learn by relating new information to existing information, and (3) as a result, similes and metaphors can be effective in job training.

With all that said, let’s look at some tips for using similes and metaphors effectively in training.

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Make Comparisons to Things People Know

As you’ve seen, similes and metaphors draw their power from the fact that the learner knows something about one of the items in the comparison. It stands to reason, then, that if your learners don’t understand either item in a comparison or analogy, it won’t help your training. For example, the simile in “The night sky was as black as coal” draws its power from the fact that you and I know coal is black. But if I made this simile to you and you had never heard of coal and didn’t know it was black, it wouldn’t help you.

There are a few things you can do to help make sure your learners understand your similes and metaphors. The first thing is to know some things about your learners. What kind of people are they? What are their experiences? What are their interests? What is their culture? What do they do at work every day? As is always true in training, the more you know about your learners and the more you craft your training to them, the more effective it will be. One easy tip here is to make comparisons to other things at work.

Second, you can make similes and metaphors that use information that’s commonly known. Don’t get too esoteric when you’re making these comparisons. For example, I’m a fan of jazz and I studied philosophy in college a bit. Once, while explaining how to use a learning management system (LMS) to a class full of workers, I used a simile that compared the philosophy of using an LMS to 1960’s avant-garde jazz and French existential philosophy. Predictably, this went over like a lead zeppelin (hey, there’s another simile). I learned my lesson and haven’t done the same since.

One way to avoid my blunder is to use similes and metaphors that compare new information to information that you know your workers are familiar with. To do this you can also try making comparisons to things that are commonly known in culture–a hit TV show that everyone watches, the big summer blockbuster movie, the big sports event, and so on.

But you’ve got to be careful–even if you’re confident that everyone is familiar with something, from time to time you’ll find someone who’s not. One good way to to avoid this trap is to simply ask your learners if they know something before you use a comparison based on it. For example, let’s return to the idea of teaching someone about American football by using similes and metaphors about soccer. It’s not a bad idea to start this by asking “Hey, are your familiar with soccer?” If they say yes, then make your metaphor/simile. If they say no, then shift gears.

Make Comparisons That Make Things Simpler

Metaphors, similes, and other comparisons work especially well when they simplify things. For example, you could try to tell me about the shape and size of an American football field by listing off the dimension, but that would probably get pretty complicated. Or, you could say something like “It’s shaped like a soccer field but is a little smaller” and that would probably very efficiently communicate what I need to know.

The flip-side to this one is that you don’t want to make an especially intricate, complicated, or difficult-to-grasp simile/metaphor. Even if you think it’s witty or brilliant.

Make Comparisons When They’re Helpful

Although similes and metaphors CAN and DO help training, that doesn’t mean you should use them willy-nilly and sprinkle them everywhere. Remember, your goal is to help workers learn new information, and that these can be especially helpful if the information is complex or difficult and would benefit from simplification. Don’t waste your time (and your learner’s working memory space) by creating similes and metaphors when you’re discussing things people already know.

Include Concrete and/or Visual Information

If you look at our examples above, you’ll see that our analogies and similes often refer to concrete objects: coal, a refrigerator, a soccer field, drying paint, etc. Similes and analogies work well when you’re comparing new information to something concrete like this. That is often easy in job training (or can be) because you may be referring to things people work with: “form x is like form y,” “this press is like that machine,” “this product is like that product,” etc.

You’ll also notice that we included a lot of information that appeals to the senses, especially our sense of sight: snow is white a flat, coal is black, etc. We’re visual creatures–our brains are well-adapted to processing visual information. And studies show that including visual information can dramatically improve training effectiveness. It stands to reason, then, that using metaphors and similes that cause the learner to create a mental image may increase the effectiveness of the training as well.

Don’t Use Comparisons That Are Potentially Misleading

Sometimes you’ll use a simile or metaphor that you think is very clear, but it may actually confuse your learners.

For example, let’s consider one of the two examples of a metaphor that we gave at the top of this article:

The hospital was a refrigerator.

The intention here is to say that the hospital was cold or chilly. But my learner might think it means the hospital was full of food (that’s true of refrigerators, right?). Or, maybe they’ll be especially poetic, and think that just as a refrigerator stores food in an impersonal way, the hospital stores human bodies in an impersonal way. In each case, the metaphor you used to try to help clarify and simplify could end up creating confusion.

So, DO try to use similes and metaphors, but remember to think about them critically and see if they create any potential confusion.

Use Visual Metaphors

Along those lines, something we haven’t directly talked about yet is making visual metaphors in training materials. In a visual metaphor, you use visuals to make the comparison between two things.

For example, consider this image from the Green Liquor Clarifiers e-learning course (this is a course about a topic in paper manufacturing and was created by Convergence Training).

The course, and the audio that accompanies the image below, is explaining the different amounts of “drag” on particles of different shapes as they fall and settle through a substance. The visual metaphor used represents the particles as skydivers falling through air. The larger the surface area presented by the particle/skydiver, represented by the width of the arc, the more drag.

Design great training materials: Use Visual Metaphors
Create Better Training Visuals Example: Use Visual Metaphors

You can use this kind of visual metaphor in many types of training. For example, if you’ve got a white board, you can often draw a visual metaphor on the board. However, this type of visual metaphor is perhaps a particular strength of e-learning courses.

For more about visual similes and metaphors, read this interesting article by the well-known learning theorist Chopeta Lyons.

Well, What’s an Analogy?

If we know what a simile and an analogy are, you may still be wondering what an analogy is.

Basically, an analogy is a comparison as well. Going back to our friends at Merriam-Webster, they say an analogy is “a comparison of two things based on their being alike in some way.”

So you can think of the word analogy as an “umbrella term” that includes both metaphors and similes, since they’re both types of comparisons based on things being alike in some way. In addition, some analogies can be thought of as longer, more extensive comparisons than similes and metaphors.

One of our favorite instructional design bloggers, Connie Malamed, has a blog post about using analogies in training. Her article covers similar ground to this one, but has some unique aspects as well. You may want to check it out.

Quick Quiz: Did you notice the metaphorical use of the word umbrella in the phrase umbrella term above? What’s an umbrella? Something you can put things under, right–like two people, for example? In the metaphor above, we used the phrase “umbrella term” to suggest you can put the concepts of metaphors and similes under the concept of analogies. So, just as two people can fit under an umbrella, the two concepts of similes and metaphors can fit under the concept of an analogy. Like all good training comparisons, we’ve taken some new information (the relationship between similes/metaphors and analogies) and compared it to some existing information (how two people can fit under an umbrella).

Have you ever used the word “bucket” to refer to classifying information–such as “well, that goes in our safety bucket, and that goes in our production bucket?” If so, you’re made a similar type of metaphor.

Metaphors, Analogies, Similes, and “Sticky” Training

If you found this blog post interesting, you may also enjoy our more recent post about the book Made to Stick, which gives six simple tips for making your training more memorable and which also discusses metaphors, analogies, similes, and the like.

Your Experiences: Using Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies To Create Better Training

We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

What are some similes, metaphors, or analogies you’ve used in training? Did they work or didn’t they? Why did they work? Why didn’t they?

Or, what are your own tips for creating effective ones? Obviously, it takes some thinking and some creativity. Who’s got some good ideas to share about how to come up with these?

We look forward to hearing from you. Until then, let us know if you’d like more information about learning management systems to organization and streamline training management at work, online workforce training courses, or custom training needs.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. Jeff has worked in education/training for more than twenty years and in safety training for more than ten. You can follow Jeff at LinkedIn as well.

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