How the billionaire Warren Buffett uses a classic rhetorical technique to make the complex simple.
Last weekend, 40,000 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders descended on Omaha, Nebraska, to watch Warren Buffett and his partner, Charlie Munger, hold court. The two billionaire investors are as known for their wit, wisdom, and advice as they are for their stock picks.
“What is most remarkable about the annual meeting is the way Buffett, 86, and Munger, 93, distill their responses to complex, technical questions into eloquent and pithy nuggets of wisdom that even novice investors can understand,” wrote one financial reporter.
Buffett is fond of using an effective rhetorical technique to make the complex, simple. He relies on the power of analogy, a comparison between two distinct things that share a similar property or relationship.
Buffett’s analogy on the soaring cost of healthcare attracted the most attention in this year’s meeting. He said, “Medical costs are the tapeworm of economic competitiveness.” What could be more evocative than a tapeworm, an organism that grows inside an intestine? The rising cost of healthcare (now at 17 percent and forecast to climb to 20 percent of the economy) is a drag on businesses and a potential economic catastrophe. A serious problem requires a serious analogy. A Google search for the phrase returned more 300,000 references. Major media platforms like CBS News even used ‘tapeworm’ in its headline.
Analogies are repeatable because they help us to understand material we know little about. By comparing the abstract with the familiar, analogies give us a framework to explain and understand complex topics.
This year we’ve had more opportunities than usual to hear Buffett’s analogies. In an HBO documentary, Becoming Warren Buffett, Buffett displayed his expertise at using analogies. One of the most notable was a baseball analogy.
Buffet cited a book by baseball legend Ted Williams called The Science of Hitting. Williams divided the strike zone into squares. “If he waited for the pitch that was really in his sweet spot, he would bat .400,” explained Buffett. “If he had to swing at something on the lower corner, he would probably bat .235. The trick in investing is watch pitch after pitch go by and wait for the one right in your sweet spot.” In other words, only invest in companies in your “circle of competence,” the sweet spot where an opportunity meets domain knowledge.
Buffett is especially fond of medieval analogies. Buffett says he looks for companies that are like “an economic castle,” with a strong moat that prevents competitors from taking the castle. Buffett took the analogy one step further, placing a knight–a strong leader–as the head of the castle. “In capitalism, people are going to try to take that castle from you so you want a moat around it and you want a knight in that castle who is pretty darn good at warding off marauders,” Buffett said.
Buffett made another yet analogy in the documentary, comparing his early investment strategy to a cigar butt. He would look for companies that were like “a discarded cigar butt and had one more smoke in it.” Buffett said the goal was to buy it at the right time to take advantage of the last smoke.
According to The Financial Times, Buffett can “barely get through a sentence” without using an analogy or metaphor. “Even when Mr. Buffett is talking about something as complex, impersonal and abstract as finance, they allow him to make it sound simple, human and concrete.”
Linguists have been studying the power of analogy for years. They’ve found that analogy is critical to how we communicate, how we invent, and how we think about the world. In the book, Shortcut, John Pollack, Bill Clinton’s former speechwriter, says, “The art of analogy is the art of cultivating and communicating ideas…in many arguments, whoever has the best analogy wins.”
Success leaves clues. Buffett loves analogies to get his point across. Take a lesson from the Oracle of Omaha himself, and use more analogies to communicate your ideas.