Analogies will keep listeners engaged — just don’t talk about your underwear.
I went back to the eye doctor today. This time, for what was diagnosed as dry eye earlier this summer. It’s a common condition in which there are not enough tears to lubricate the eye, so the eye tears. As annoying as it is, I was told it’s not a big deal and can be easily treated with drops. The receptionist gave me a discount coupon and sent me on my way.
However, the drops were useless. They appeared to make the condition even worse. So, I did what any resourceful person would do. I googled my diagnosis to learn more about it, which is when I discovered I may not have dry eye at all.
The articles suggested allergies, dust irritation and possible cataracts. One article even pointed to watery eyes indicating a far more serious syndrome that destroys glands responsible for lubricating different parts of the body. That’s when I stopped reading and went to the pharmacy.
The pharmacist said it sounded like allergies and recommended allergy eye drops which didn’t work either.
So I quit all the drops and decided to just put up with it until recently when my makeup started running and someone at one of my speaking engagements asked me if I had pink eye. That’s when I called the eye doctor and made another appointment.
For those of you not familiar with my original eye doctor story, I’ve written about it before. A couple of years ago, I started seeing spots. My regular doctor wasn’t available so I was given an appointment with Dr. Brown. She diagnosed me with floaters, another common condition that occurs as the jelly-like substance inside your eyes becomes more liquid and can clump together. Apparently that can cast tiny shadows on the retina which appear as floating spots.
Only, she didn’t put it that way. She said I’d get used to it and explained it this way: “This morning when I put on my underwear, I could feel it, but after wearing it for a while, I no longer knew it was there.”
Not knowing Dr. Brown at all, I was a tad uncomfortable discussing her underwear.
So imagine my surprise today when she is the doctor they’ve assigned me to see because my regular doctor is on vacation. As she walks in the room, I clearly remember her but she doesn’t seem to remember me or my floaters.
She examines me and pronounces that I do not have dry eye but instead have a condition called blepharitis. I said it sounds scary. She says it’s a very common eyelid inflammation but that it was nothing to worry about. But I was a little worried. A lot of serious conditions that came to mind all seem to end with those i-t-i-s letters: conjunctivitis, arthritis, bronchitis, colitis and appendicitis. I’m sure there are more.
She tried to reassure me, offering that blepharitis is usually age related. Somehow, that didn’t make me feel better. She said it can’t be cured but the inflammation can be controlled with warm eye washes, drops and hygiene. Relieved, I asked if she could elaborate because my eyelids didn’t feel inflamed.
Evidently, Dr. Brown likes to use analogies which can be a very effective way to help people make sense of information.
She tells me to think of this condition as salad dressing. If you pour full fat dressing on your lettuce, it will drench it and liquid will seep out. If you use low fat dressing, there won’t be as much liquid to seep out. She says my eyes are like lettuce with full fat dressing.
Thoroughly confused as to what that salad dressing has to do with my newly diagnosed eye inflammation, I simply nodded and said nothing. I think I was just relieved that we were discussing salads and not her underwear.
I give Dr. Brown credit for trying to simplify information. When we coach speakers, we often advise using analogies and comparisons especially when delivering new information.
For example, if an architect is building a mall and he provides numbers to explain the size of the project, it might not mean much. However, if he likens the mall to the size of five football fields, it’s visual and easier to understand.
The problem with Dr. Brown isn’t that she uses analogies; it’s that she uses the wrong ones. In meetings and during presentations, people do this every day. What they perceive is clear can actually be very confusing.
The same is true with storytelling. I frequently hear presenters sharing stories because they’ve been told to do so to make their talks more interesting. While stories clearly engage and connect, like analogies, stories should only be told to drive messages and enhance understanding.
According to WebMD, Blepharitis, is a dysfunction of the eyelid’s oil glands and is the most common cause of dry eyes. Some have it and aren’t bothered while others like me experience discomfort.
Perhaps a more effective analogy is one offered by Dr. Scheffer C. G. Tseng, the medical director of the Ocular Surface Center in Miami. He drew an analogy to the house dust-mite, saying some people can live with it and never get sick, but it causes asthma attacks in others.
That’s pretty simple to understand and simplicity should always be the goal when communicating. Sometimes, like Dr. Brown we have the right intentions, but we simply try too hard.