The Art of Explaining

January 07, 2021

When I was young, I hated going to church. Although I have always loved learning, I never seemed to be able to understand the priest. It was very confusing to me to understand how I could be so smart in school and so dumb in church. The reason, as I learned later, was that the priest was preaching in Latin. The priest spent an hour every Sunday preaching religious complexities to his congregation in a dead language.

The priest’s congregation was primarily comprised of lower-to-middle-class older people, many of whom had never finished high school. They also understood very little English. Yet, somehow, for some inexplicable reason, our priest thought it wise to preach most of the sermon to them in the language of the Roman Empire, which has been extinct for more than fifteen hundred years. Although parishioners religiously attended masses which they could not understand, there often came a point where they lost interest.

This story demonstrates that even if a message is on point, if it’s not understood, it loses meaning.  At Wovenware, for example, we often must explain very complex technical concepts to clients who are not tech-savvy, but how can complexity be simplified?

When it comes to technology, explaining complex topics in ways that are easy to comprehend is an art even more difficult than Latin, but there are some tips on how it can be accomplished.

Explaining vs Defining

Before getting into the specific techniques, it’s important to understand the difference between explaining and defining. It’s easy to find definitions in dictionaries and textbooks that clearly and accurately expose “the generic and differential characteristics of something material or immaterial.”  When defining a concept, you must be exact, with millimeter precision. When a concept is explained, however, it’s presented in a general and more imperfect way, but gets the point across.

This difference is important. The reason why so many scientists and intellectuals are terrible at explaining concepts is precisely because they are not actually explaining; they’re defining.

To make sure you are explaining complex topics so that they are understood, consider the following six techniques.

Techniques for Better Explanations

1. Know your audience, be it a single person or a legion

The first technique is to get to know the person you are talking to.

Speak in the person’s native language You should not speak Latin to people who hardly know Spanish. If the person speaks Esperanto or Mandarin and you know the language, speak to them in their native language.

Avoid jargons. A jargon is a set of specific and particular expressions shared by insiders of a profession that would be difficult for outsiders to understand. Unless you are going to explain something to a professional colleague, do not use them. Find another way to refer to the same concept so the rest of us mortals can understand you.

2. Storytelling

Another useful technique is storytelling, a great way to explain concepts, from the simplest to the most complex. Think of all the short stories that were read to you as a child. All those simple stories of fairies and magical creatures usually contained a lesson: from not lying (Pinocchio) to the importance of accepting and improving yourself (The Ugly Duckling). And, you understood them, even when you were a child because stories are effective. The art of storytelling is very old but very useful.

The great attraction of stories is based on two things: relationship and aspiration. We like stories because we see some of our characteristics reflected in the characters (relationship), or because we aspire to be like them, to achieve what they do, or to avoid their mistakes (aspiration). Who watches Harry Potter or reads the books and wouldn’t like to be a Hogwarts student? (Muggles, but that is another story). Who does not watch a horror movie and start to judge the decisions of the characters? “Don’t go in there!,” we say.

This does not mean that whenever you explain a concept you have to write a short story or a three-hundred-page novel. But, what you can do is include short narrative stories (real or fictional) as part of your explanation.

Note that stand-up comedians overuse this technique because it is an excellent method of connecting with the audience. “Has it ever happened to you…?” they begin by saying.

Let me give you an example of the power of storytelling. When John asked Natalia: “When did you learn to drive?”, the answer should not be: “November 13, 1987.” Instead, Natalia answered: “When I was 16 years old, my dad would take me to drive his Jeep through the mall that is close to home.” Natalia told a story, to John of how she learned to drive. Not only did she tell him what her father said and how old she was, but she shared specific details: the make of the vehicle she drove, the place where she drove, etc. John would probably have forgotten how old Natalia was at the time, (let’s face it, dates are tough to remember). However, as there was a story involved, with characters and emotions, it is very possible that years later John could explain to another person the version he remembers of the story as: “When Natalia was a teenager, her father taught her to drive a Jeep in a mall. ” Note that it is not the same vocabulary or level of detail used by Natalia, but it is still quite accurate.

By tying together characters, feelings, and emotions to an explanation, even in an implicit way, you will get your audience to understand the concept, not exactly, but quite precisely.

3. Figurative language

Although storytelling itself is a masterpiece, there is another technique that we can use to improve it even more — figurative language. Simply put, figurative language is explaining or describing through comparison. There are many forms of figurative language, but the two I find very important are simile and metaphor.

Simile

A simile is a comparison that uses the words “like” or “as” to show the similarity between two things. For example:

Her explanation was as clear as water. -> Her explanation was accurate.

He behaved like a wild animal. -> His behavior was not appropriate.

We can use the simile to add emotional details to an expression. “The building is large,” is not the same as, “The building is like a standing giant.” The second expression will make a greater impression on the listener and, therefore, it will be easier to understand the height of the building without having to use numerical values, which any human being would forget in a heartbeat.

Metaphor

Another way to better tell stories or communicate is through a metaphor. A metaphor uses the same concept as a simile, but it does not say that object A is like object B, it says that object A is object B. For example:

She was drowning in a sea of tears. -> She was crying a lot.

Juan is a morning bird. -> Juan gets up early.

In my opinion, the metaphor is even better than the simile in creating a strong impression on another person. Compare the following expressions:

Captain Sparrow sailed the seas, mirrors of the sky. (Metaphor)

Captain Sparrow sailed the seas, which are like mirrors that reflect the sky. (Simile)

Captain Sparrow sailed the seas, which reflect the sky.

In my opinion, the first one has a more poetic tone that helps it make a bigger impression. Yet, both a simile and a metaphor can help you create dramatic figures or images that will help your listener to remember and understand your explanation more easily.

4. Analogies

Another useful technique for explaining concepts is an analogy. An analogy is very similar to a simile and a metaphor, but it is not considered a figurative language because it is not used to compare, but to relate. Contrary to simile and metaphor, analogy starts from two different things and looks for a common root. For example:

A hammer is to a carpenter what a paintbrush is to an artist.

If a person did not know the word “tool,” but understood what an artist is and what he does with a paintbrush, this analogy would help him to understand the concept perfectly without even knowing its name. That is why it is important to know your audience (technique #1).

The effectiveness of analogies depends on the knowledge we have about the listener. If you use an analogy that involves quantum physics to explain something to a basketball player, there is a high probability that he will not pay any attention to you. He could understand you, of course, but only if he puts equal effort into reading complicated science books as he does winning the national championship. How about using analogies about basketball instead? Would not the chances of him understanding you be higher? The same applies to other scenarios. If you are lecturing a bunch of college kids you have never met in your life, how about making an analogy about college, books, or learning? You may not realize it but you probably use analogies all the time.

Can you relate to this typical scene at a hardware store?

“Excuse me, sir,” the lady called to the clerk.

“How can I help you?”

“Can you show me where the elbow of the pipes is?”

“The elbow of the pipes?” he asked, puzzled.

“Yeah. That thing you use to join two pipes and go around a corner. I also need a T.”

“Oh! I get it. The ‘PVC fittings are in aisle four, in plumbing. Come with me. I’ll help you.”

Has it happened to you? This story is so common that most hardware stores have already chosen to add the words “elbow” and “T” to the joints of PVC pipes. In fact, do a search of the term “elbow” on Home Depot and you will see that if you write “elbow” you will get some “PVC fitting” as a result. We all know that a plastic pipe and an elbow are two different things, but hardware store customers who do not know the name have found it easy to find a common root in the bend of a specific type of PVC joint and a human elbow. And it has paid off.

5. Images

Another technique is the use of images, and this time we are not talking about figurative images, but the real thing. This is nothing more than making similes, metaphors, and analogies with images instead of words. For example:

This image from Antonio Guillem is one of the most famous memes in the world (Distracted Boyfriend) because millions of people have been able to understand a joke without a single written word. People of all nationalities in the world have seen this image and have concluded that in the center of it a dead man is walking because that woman on the right is about to take his heart out and bury it two meters underground. Or we have mentally substituted the women and we have seen ourselves reflected in the man, where the woman on the right represents the things we have and the woman on the left, the things we want. This second interpretation is the most common and for which many versions of the same image have emerged, with texts and other images superimposed, comparing one brand, book, or series for another. Here is my version of it:

You do not have to dedicate yourself to creating memes. The magic is in using images of widely known things to imply something by comparison (metaphor/simile) or association (analogy).

When the first PCs were invented, the people who designed them were wise. They did not want to have to explain what bits or bytes were, and they recognized that you might not even care about them. So, to make life easier, instead of bits you come across words like document or folder. When you go to save a file, you come across an image of a floppy disk. When you delete a document, it goes to a trash can. These images of everyday things allow you to use the device without fully understanding how it really works.

That is the purpose of all these techniques. Remember that explaining and defining are two very different things.

6. Variety

Human beings are also very different from one another. we learn at different speeds and in different ways. That is why this last technique is really a piece of advice — Use more than one technique. There are those who understand a metaphor better than a simile, those who understand a story better, who grasp images better. So, if you use more than one technique, you will increase the chances that people can understand you better, especially if you speak to many people. And use humor from time to time. Ideas are easier to retain when they are expressed in a fun way.

How do I know if my art of explanation has improved?

The only way to know if you are using these techniques successfully is through observation. If you explain a topic and only your peers can understand you, you still need to practice. My recommendation is that you write down your ideas before saying them, and understand that you use many of these techniques unconsciously. Now, try to do them consciously, on purpose, with pure intention.

Soon, you won’t even think about any of this and you will be the Picasso of explanations.

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