“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."