When I picked up Shortcut by John Pollack, it became immediately evident I would not be able to put it down. This book is a wonderful exploration of the power of analogies and a brief history of their impact on the major and minor events in our lives. Pollack’s credentials as a speech writer on Capitol Hill, including the White House, allowed him to provide both theoretical examples of the power of analogies but real, consequential examples as well. As a storyteller and a student of narrative psychology, the insights and practical advice gleaned from this book make it one of the most valuable on my shelf. It’s goal, which it accomplished, was to strengthen my metaphorical muscles and amplify my analogical powers. If you’re looking to deepen your understanding of analogies or just get better at using them to explain ideas, influence others and tell stories, I recommend picking up a copy of this book.
Pollack’s writing was engaging because he writes like a layered cake. As you read, you process the lesson while also recognizing how he’s using the lesson on you. He doesn’t just explain his ideas, he successfully uses analogies to explain his ideas. It was as if the book was both the pudding and the proof.
Despite there being only five chapters, Pollack packages a clear argument in each one and lays out his ideas with clear and engaging writing. Each chapter is a lesson such as how analogies affect cognition, shape outcomes, spark innovation and persuade. His final chapter sets up the “how-to” portion of the book where he offers tips and insights to choosing better analogies in your own work. Here are a few of the ideas that most resonated with me:
- Analogies are perfectly imperfect. Pollack points out that the power of analogies is through a process called structure mapping. That is, we map knowledge from its conceptual base onto a target and preserve the structure of relevant relationships while discarding the rest according to the highest order relationships. In other words, when we hear an analogy, we compare our understanding of the analogy (say a football game) to our understanding of the idea (such as a team at work) and map everything that most clearly connects and discard the rest. It doesn’t matter that there are no hikes in a team at work because we do recognize there are quarterbacks (team leader), huddles (team meetings), and end zones (the goal). Pollack also notes, “the more familiar we are with a given analogy, the easier the analogy is to grasp and the more likely it is to resonate.”
- Analogies affect the argument and the outcome. Pollack demonstrates that analogies are powerful as tools to influence. But more than that, they can inherently shift the very focus of an argument between two parties. Once a powerful analogy is established, the argument tends to shift on the fit of the analogy versus the validity of the data. Pollack dissects the “Three Strike” analogy used for repeat offenders. Because baseball was such an acceptable analogy, the idea took hold despite its many flaws. Overcoming such an analogy can be more challenging than finding the data to disprove it.
- Analogies are mini-stories. This is the real insight I took from the book. The idea that analogies are in essence short, powerful stories. Like stories, analogies are engaging, easy to share, and provide a structure that helps make sense out of complex, chaotic ideas or concepts. Pollack describes them as “compressed and spring-loaded stories.” Where Threadline works in narratives, analogies are like the fun-size candies of narratives you pass out for Halloween.
Pollack’s book is worth the read and includes a number of practical tips to improve your own approach to analogies. But the value of the book is perhaps best summarized by Einstein when he says, “growth comes through analogy and seeing how things connect, rather than only seeing how they might be different.” And that’s a lesson we could all benefit from.