As someone who has spent their life working to support, train and educate people, I have learned again and again how important it is to be able to explain difficult concepts quickly and clearly. A good explanation can help everyone involved leap forward in their understanding and productivity. There are few tools as powerful as a good explanation to help people work to their highest potential, but there is a bit of an art to creating and delivering great explanations and answers to tough questions. Here are a few guidelines I have developed over the years to help me be better at explaining and always work towards making concepts and ideas clearer, not more confusing.
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Know it all, then distill
In order to explain something clearly, you need to have knowledge that is both wide and deep. You need to understand every aspect of a task or problem, so you can determine what works best in any given situation. Unfortunately, this extensive knowledge is often your greatest impediment to explaining the concept or task to others. Since we know so much about the topic, we can be eager to share all that knowledge with others. Of course, those around us often don’t need (or want) that much detail. They need a basic understanding of the issue and a few good ways of dealing with that issue. When you try to unload every fact, figure and concept on them, they quickly “fill up” and tune out.
Instead, once you have gained your deep understanding, your next step is to distill that knowledge down to its very essence. Knowing what you now know, what are the most important facts that need to be shared? What advice, tips, rules, procedures can be developed that anyone — even without your deep knowledge — can use to be more productive, accurate, effective, whatever? It can be difficult to distill large amounts of knowledge down, but it is so critical. Your expertise comes not only from deep knowledge. If you can’t share it effectively, it is almost worse than not having the knowledge at all. Knowledge that can’t be share is wasted time, potential and productivity.
Less, then more
Always start with less information when communicating. Like the pyramid method taught in journalism school, start with most important piece of information first, then the next, then the next. Make sure that your listener clearly understands what you are saying at each point before moving on. Also, learn to recognize when they have enough information. Some may need only the basics while other may need, or desire, more detailed information to both better understand the issue themselves and be better able to explain to others. Each person is different. Each role is different. You’ll have to watch carefully for what each person needs from you and seek to provide that. Remember, the communication isn’t about you and your knowledge. It is about your listener’s wants and needs.
Use your listener’s language
When you are extremely knowledgeable about a topic, it is easy to fall into using the specific technical language of that topic when speaking to others. Don’t. Use the language of your listener so that they understand you best. Remember the last time you visited your doctor or dentist and they started talking about Maxillary lateral incisors and third metatarsels. Did you really understand them or just nod your head? I know I find myself stopping them and asking for simpler explanations all the time. Don’t be like them. While it may be important they they know and use their own very specific vocabulary, speaking in the patients own language greatly speeds and facilitates understanding.
Speak in your listener’s language. Use metaphors and examples from their life and work. If they are an artist, speak in artist’s terms of composition, balance and design. If they are a lawyer, you’ll need to be able to use basic and correct legal terminology to get your point across. If they work in finance, then financial metaphors and examples are your best tool. Don’t think that you can dazzle people with the brilliance of your own specialized vocabulary and language. They will simply stop listening. Trust me, I have explained the difference between RAM and Hard drive space more times than you can count and still the best metaphor I can use is that of the desktop and a file cabinet. I can talk bits, bytes and kilobytes until I am out of breath, but all they will hear is blah, blah,blah.
No matter how complex, technical or difficult an issue, always seek to make it clearer, not more confusing. Better knowledge, better quality and better productivity only comes from a clear understanding of an issue. If your explanation only adds to the confusion surrounding it, you are making your life — and the lives of those around you — much more difficult. Gain wide and deep knowledge. Distill that knowledge down to its essence and then communicate that essence using the language of your listener. This is just one more way to build the career you deserve and the careers of those around you.