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The Power of an Analogy: My Conversation with Scott Hanselman

I recently spoke with Scott Hanselman for the Hanselminutes podcast. We discussed tech’s culture promoting alcohol use. I pitched the topic to Scott five months prior. He expressed interest and some hesitation. Scott wanted to make sure I could carry a 30-minute podcast without coming across as preachy. We had a few emails back and forth and ended up setting a date to chat.

Scott and I had a brief conversation before starting the recording of my episode. Scott shared with me he couldn’t relate to alcohol abuse. He said he was a tea-totaller. By choice, he never drank. He never had an issue with alcohol. I told Scott I was fine with that. I thought of him as my target audience. Someone who has no issue with alcohol is less likely to assume others might have issues with alcohol. I reinforced to him my mission is raising awareness. I don’t lecture people about their own use of alcohol.

We hit record and started our conversation.

Shortly in, Scott introduced an analogy. He compared being an insulin-dependent diabetic, to having an issues with alcohol use. Scott shared that he has insulin pumps and constantly monitors his insulin status. For him, the act of eating food is done for survival, not so much for enjoyment.

Scott shared a story about traveling with an overbearing colleague. They needed to figure out where to eat. Scott’s colleague wanted to eat somewhere more adventurous. Scott wanted to play it safe and eat at Subway. This would allow him to wake up and function at the workshop he was giving the next day. Scott knew eating something unfamiliar might throw off his insulin. Scott’s colleague displayed little understanding of Scott’s medical condition or his mindset towards food. He pestered Scott about where they would eat. Scott shared this type of situation occurs fairly often.

Scott’s analogy was spot on. I told him I wanted to disagree with him. But I couldn’t find anything to disagree with. His experience as an insulin-dependent diabetic had meaningful parallels with my experience abusing alcohol. There were at least three important parallels to Scott’s analogy:

1) Scott knew eating adventurously might negatively impact his performance at the workshop the next day.

Sober alcohol abusers know consuming alcohol is likely to negatively impact their performance the next day.

2) Scott’s colleague demonstrated little awareness or understanding of the reasons Scott didn’t want to eat adventurously.

Colleagues of those who are sober often display little awareness or understanding for not wanting to consume alcohol.

3) Scott’s colleague pressured him in an area Scott felt was personal and not something to negotiate.

Alcohol abusers who are sober often get asked why they aren’t drinking. Peers pressure them to discuss a personal topic they shouldn’t have to negotiate.

There are more parallels. But these are the most meaningful for this post. Scott and finished with a great conversation after he shared his analogy. I hope you will take a listen.

I wanted to write this post to share some insight I gained from reflecting on my conversation with Scott. I reflected on the experience. I was appreciative Scott made such a powerful analogy. I was also surprised at how impactful it was.

I started dissecting why Scott’s analogy was so powerful. I identified three factors making for a powerful and effective analogy.

A good analogy is:

Relevant — Scott’s analogy was relevant. If Scott used an example from video games or herpatology, it would have been less relevant. Sharing his condition as a human with my condition as a human was immediately relevant.

Relatable — The CDC estimates nearly 30 million Americans have diabetes. My grandmother was an insulin dependent diabetic. Scott didn’t know that, but it made the analogy much more impactful. I remember my grandmother giving herself insulin shots on many occasions. Scott suggesting a rare genetic disorder most people have never heard of as analogous with having alcohol issues would not have been effective. I would’ve had to look up the disorder, learn about the disorder, and understand how the parallels exist. Our interview would have ended before I did that.

Respectful — Scott’s analogy reflected a respect for me and my situation. Diabetes is a serious condition. So is alcohol abuse. If Scott would have compared having an alcohol issue with being a child with no self-control, that wouldn’t have reflected an attempt to respect where I’m coming from.

In short, a good analogy reflects empathy with a person or situation.

Talking with Scott was great. I felt he came away with a good understanding of why we need to consider how we promote alcohol use in tech. I am happy he let me share my experience with his listeners.

I also learned a lot from the conversation with Scott. You can create a shared understanding of an experience using an effective analogy. You need to have empathy to create a good analogy. I will look for future opportunities to create understanding through analogies. Not only when it comes to the topic of alcohol abuse.

What experiences have you had with analogies? Feel free to share a story in the comments.

Here’s the podcast. I hope you don’t find me preachy.