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“Through-Put Maximization” or Grains of Rice?

Congratulations to science writer Paul Haase. He just won $1,000 for explaining “through-put maximization” in plain language using grains of rice. According to today’s Seattle Times, Haase won the money in a challenge sponsored by Doug MacDonald, secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The challenge was to explain the concept “through-put maximization,” which transportation experts understand as “moving the maximum number of vehicles through a stretch of highway at the maximum speed,” according to the Seattle Times story.

Haase explained it this way:

“The physics of car-flow in a highway resemble those of rice poured through a funnel. If you pour slowly, you get little out, but if you pour too fast, the rice clogs and you get little–or nothing–out either. Car-flow involves similar thinking. For any highway there’s a particular in-between speed that moves the most vehicles under typical conditions.”

Haase used an analogy. He compared the complex concept of optimal traffic flow to something familiar–rice poured through a funnel–to help the audience understand easily.

You can use analogies whenever you need to make abstract concepts understandable. Use them to explain technical information, systems, or processes; define terms; and help readers relate to unfamiliar situations.

For tips on using analogies effectively in business writing and teaching, see my article “Imagine This: Using Analogies.”

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.