How to pitch any idea to any person

How do you convey a complex idea to a non-expert? How do you explain it accurately without dumbing down? Above all, how do you persuade people it matters? That was the challenge I set a group of graduate students at Cambridge University, during a recent session on communication.

Many of the students were about to embark on MBAs at the Judge Institute, the University’s business school. Others were researching subjects of varying degrees of abstruseness, including Economics, Maths and Theoretical Physics.

I wanted each student to leave the session with a snappy explanation of their subject, or some complicated aspect of it. An elevator pitch if you like. Something they could wheel out when the master of their college turns to them over port and asks: ‘so, what are you working on, then?’

To help them craft an answer that would bewitch rather than bewilder, I challenged each member of the class to come up with a metaphor. An analogy in which they compared their topic to something concrete, visual and everyday. It could be something food-related, some aspect of the landscape, a famous person or a common task.

With just a few minutes’ thought, each member of the class soon had their own metaphor – a highly concrete image anyone could relate to. Frogs in ponds, pizza chefs and cutlery drawers were among the images the students called on to explain what they did.

One metaphor came from a corporate lawyer who was about to do an MBA. Corporate law, he said, was like the Football Association’s rules. As with football, the rules don’t just make the game go smoothly. They also protect the players from each other and from themselves. Without referees, linesmen and a rulebook, the game wouldn't just disintegrate - injuries would be rife.

Granted, corporate law ain’t as complex as string theory. But what I like about this analogy is that it’s persuasive. For isn’t big business always pushing for ever lighter-touch regulation? The student’s metaphor emphasises why the rules are in the best interests of those who ordinarily hate them.

In short, the metaphor gets to the ‘why’ of corporate law. Simon Sinek would surely approve.

Here’s another great example of the persuasive power of metaphor. It’s John Naughton, Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University, writing in the Observer:

One of the ideas I was always trying to get across was why open-source software was important. The term "open source" is actually a euphemism for free software, coined because some advocates of free software thought that the US corporate world would associate the word "free" with communism. The key thing about free software is not that you don't pay for it (because sometimes you do) but that you have the freedom to change it to meet your requirements – on condition that you pass on the same freedom to anyone who uses the modified software.

When I tried to explain the significance of this to my lay audiences, however, they invariably responded with blank stares. And then one day I realised what the problem was – none of them had ever written a program. So the next time I gave a talk I brought with me a copy of Delia Smith's great Complete Cookery Course. I put up a slide showing her recipe for gratin dauphinois, one of the ingredients for which is 150ml of double cream. "Now," I said, "double cream is not good for me, so I'd like to substitute single cream in the recipe. Can you imagine a world in which, if I wanted to do that, I would have to get Delia's written permission, and possibly pay her a fee? Wouldn't that be absurd?"

So if you're pitching a new product, a business, or idea, find a metaphor anyone can relate to. Check back for future posts on how to develop your metaphor muscles.