How can I improve my ability to explain things better?
March 9, 2009 1:55 PM   Subscribe

How can I improve my ability to explain things better? This could be anything from describing a film I watched yesterday to a explaining technological solutions such as GPS, or 'RSS feeds' to non-technical managers at a business. Are there any basic rules with explanations which could help improve general explanation skills? Were you crap at explaining things but have now improved? How did you do it?
posted by razzman to Grab Bag (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
How can I say this?

The first lesson I learned when doing the 'describe a process' writing assignment in elementary school was to take into account your audience. You can be the most explicit, clearest explainer ever but if you don't take into consideration the person you're attempting to enlighten there's a chance nothing you do will get through. Some people, you can rattle off an outline and they'll pick up the idea and follow right along. Others you need to lay out every excruciating detail on paper, audibly, and/or then have them demonstrate their understanding before they get it. Understand your audience, and they will better understand you.
posted by carsonb at 2:01 PM on March 9, 2009

Drawing useful and creative analogies can help a great deal. My current job requires me to describe fairly technical products to audiences of varying backgrounds. I sometimes imagine that I'm explaining my job to my grandfather, who was one of those brilliant folks who never got past 8th grade, but managed to learn to build pretty much anything and do it very well. He had mechanical and electrical chops, but nothing in computers and networks. Analogies were important, but I had to learn how to reframe concepts for him. Sometimes I try to do it in Spanish. Always in my head, though, since he passed away a few years ago.

I guess...lots of practice. (on preview, everything that carsonb says)
posted by jquinby at 2:03 PM on March 9, 2009

Know where you're going with a summary / explanation, so you avoid tangents that detract from your presentation or story. And start out simply, then expand. Beyond that, I'd say it's context-specific. Are your friends looking for a detailed re-telling of the awesomeness of That New Movie, or just a quick summary of the plot? Does the non-techie need to know how and why something works, or just know which package to use?

If necessary, take a moment to assess the situation before diving in. At work I've found my descriptions ramble too much, and I start at the wrong point. I now think about what I am trying to get across, and start with the least amount of information necessary to tell my story.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:05 PM on March 9, 2009

The best explanations are rehearsed. The first attempt tends to be a brain-dump (like the wetware version of a software core-dump) about a topic. Typically you will repeat certain details, and leave important ones out. This can be refined, re-organized, and simplified into a good explanation. Also keep the audience in mind, talking to an audience familiar with the surrounding domain you may emphasize certain gotchas or special cases, while with a less familiar audience they will need things explained that you hardly think about any more because they are so familiar they seem trivial.
posted by idiopath at 2:07 PM on March 9, 2009

Topics that I am really good at explaining come from simply explaining them to myself. It sounds crazy, but when I'm bored I'll just think of a topic that I have experience in or know a lot about and explain it the best I can. If something sounds vague or not well explained to myself, then I mentally edit it. Eventually, it allows me to explain something very well and helps me explain new things better with the practice from explaining other things.
posted by Chan at 2:07 PM on March 9, 2009

I still fall back on my essay organization methods from high school/uni, with a healthy dollop of cheap analogy thrown in for good measure. First frame the canvas, slap on some broad brushstrokes, and start systematically adding detail with increasingly fine brushes and more complex colours until your audience can tell what the painting is supposed to be or you run out of time.

No, wait. That's Pictionary. But it probably still applies.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 2:08 PM on March 9, 2009

Great advice so far. When I got my first newspaper job, one of the older guys told me I should always figure out the following on any article I did:


The order's not important, but having answers for these items is going to cover most questions you'll be asked. Breaking a subject else like this is also a helpful way to frame it for your own understanding - the deeper your understanding, the more effortless the explanation.
posted by EatTheWeak at 2:08 PM on March 9, 2009

i find that if i haven't really thought about how to explain something beforehand, i do pretty crappy at it. especially with movie or book plots - because i'm trying to not give something away.

with more tech things, i find it useful to actually write down, on paper or computer, the essence of each step. if there are no steps (what is an RSS feed?) then try to come up with the most basic elements. if you can talk out loud while doing this, that helps as well.

if you need to practice, find a willing victim/friend who does not understand the process and try it on them.

i tend to be a "think out loud" person, so sometimes my explanations can get a bit rambling. trying to come up with some stock explanations on "how to do x with my xdevice?" and "what is this feature we're being charged for on x statement?" has been very helpful.

oh and i use analogies - like jquinby said.

and on preview, looks like everyone has said this.
posted by sio42 at 2:09 PM on March 9, 2009

1) Practice explaining. As you try to explain some particular genre, whether film styles or computer skills, you'll learn what explanations work and which ones fall flat. You'll also discover, through trial and error, what constitutes "common knowledge" from that field. You can draw upon that common knowledge to make comparisons and analogies that aid your explanation. If you have the opportunity to interact with your audience by asking questions about your explanation, you can also assess how well particular explanatory techniques worked and where they fell short.

2) Read in the field that you want to explain. If you want to learn how to describe films, read film reviews. Read how geocachers describe their activity to see how people explain how GPS can be used. These writers explain their content area; by reading their works, you can pick up techniques for your own use. You can even think about how their explanations fall short and how you would revise their writing to make a particular point clearer.

3) Learn more about the field you want to explain. If you want to explain RSS feeds, collect examples of how people use RSS. Learn about different applications to read RSS feeds and what their strengths/weaknesses are. Also, explore what the limitations of RSS are: perhaps RSS feeds can't be customized to display only particular categories for each user, whereas a user can construct a custom news page on your web site. I don't know if this is true, but knowing that would be helpful in explaining to a non-techy what kinds of uses are suited to RSS and what uses are not. Your explanations can only be as good as your own knowledge of what you are explaining; the better you know your subject, the better you can select what information is relevant to your audience, anticipate stumbling blocks to their understanding, and adapt your explanation to clarify those points.
posted by philosophygeek at 2:12 PM on March 9, 2009

You have to solicit feedback at regular intervals during your explanation, and be prepared to speed up or slow down your explanation according to what you hear from your interlocutors.
posted by gyusan at 2:13 PM on March 9, 2009

oh and i use analogies - like jquinby said.

I agree. A theater director told me not to waste time telling an actor what to feel, just tell them to "react like you just tasted an unexpectedly bitter sip of coffee."

One can go too far down this road, after a rather frustratingly lengthy time working for some technologically naive people on a technology-intensive project, I earned the nickname Andy Analogy.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:19 PM on March 9, 2009

The question is, are you trying to explain what things are (or what they do), or how they do it? Explaining the mathematics of GPS triangulation may require some trig and math that people desperately want to ignore.

Probably the most useful class I had in the field of explaining things to people who don't know anything was a bioinformatics class geared towards both CS and Biologists. It's imperative to avoid as much jargon as possible, even though the biology field is full of jargon. It's also imperative to realize when a mathematical explanation will seize the gearworks, so to speak.

You might find a toast master's club and gear your own work towards explaination.
posted by pwnguin at 2:19 PM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

People want to solve problems and they rarely care about the bla bla bla fascinating story behind the wonder widget if it's not going to help them learn to use it. I teach technology to people who, for some reason or another (and there is ALWAYS a reason) don't yet know basic technology stuff. Simple engaging explanations are my specialty.

- So don't tell them about the history of the internet if it won't help them solve email [there are arguments that SOME explanation actually will help people send email]. Don't make an explanation into a ""lsiten to how smart I am" description
- in fact, leave yourself out of it as much as possible unless [adn this is a big unless] people need that to attach to your topic. If they do, try to be engaging without being mememe about it.
- leave your judgements out of it. I hate Vista, personally, but that doesn't help the lady with a Vista laptop send email. If peopel ask for opinions, be prepared to offer them, gently and with a lot of backup.
- people like authoritative replies. If you are not authoritative, find someone who is and link to them or suggest that they read them to bolster whatever you say
- hook your examples off of things that people know but don't go overboard with metaphor

So when I talk about RSS, I talk about my three friends who each update their website on a different frequency (once a day, once a week, once a month)and how with RSS I can check one site once a day and not have to go check three websites every day *and* be disappointed most of the time. This is why it's useful. Then I talk about the weather and how to "subscribe" to it like it was a magazine subscription.

Often people want one way to solve a problem -- what camera do I buy, what webmail do I need, how do I search for something -- and they don't want a treatise on searching or Consumer Reports, they want you to give them either one answer or two and let them pick one. A great deal of being good at explaining is trying to pick up what sort of answers people want [technical, simple, historical, personal] before you launch into it and then check in as you're explaining to see if what you're saying is working at all.
posted by jessamyn at 2:23 PM on March 9, 2009

pwnguin mentions a great point: a class on one subject geared towards a different audience is a great way to pick up tips on this skill. I audited a basic (but thorough!) astronomy course aimed at arts/lit students, and they did a fantastic job at outlining and describing fairly complex subjects to a mixed group.

Is dropping in on such a course an option? I guarantee you'll start picking up tricks in the first class.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 2:25 PM on March 9, 2009

Yes, I was crap at explaining things, and now I'm better. How did I do it? Someone made me an assitant editor for my society's journal. I had to read technical papers and figure out what the authors meant to say and then help them say it better. The strange thing is that I started doing this when, by any objective measure, I was a terrible writer, but by concentrating very hard on understanding these manuscripts, I figured out how to be clearer in my own writing. If you can't become an actual editor for a newsletter in your field, you can at least pretend. It requires no equipment, just time.

This is only a solution for a limited type of explaining. I don't think editing technical journals will help with movie plots. Or with metafilter comments.
posted by acrasis at 4:20 PM on March 9, 2009

Taking a debate class or joining something like Toastmasters will really help in learning how to get your point across quickly, succinctly, and with enough detail to stick. It's an age-old adage, but:

1. Tell them what you're going to tell them.
2. Tell them.
3. Tell them what you've told them.

So explain in as few points as possible what you're going to argue, or cover, then cover it, then rehash in a few sentences. Keeping this in mind has helped me explain things in study groups quite a bit!

Also, try thinking about what they want explained as well. They don't need a history of x if they simply want to know how to use x. Think about how you would like the explanation be given to you, if you were asking that question.
posted by thatbrunette at 5:30 PM on March 9, 2009

I noticed that whenever I had to explain the same thing twice in a row, the second time was always much clearer. For me, it wasn't the initial explanation, but the second or third where I started to learn something by recognizing patterns. And I guess the primary pattern for me was to make everything shorter/tighter. Don't say things twice just to take up room.

You've probably seen people do this when they give a long-winded explanation about this or that, and then wrap it up in 2 sentences by saying "So what I mean to say is, let's take the Mazda to drive the monkey to the library and then go grab some appetizers with your aunt." Well why didn't you just say so in the first place?

Too bad it's rare that you get to explain something twice in a row. Maybe the next time you give an explanation and it doesn't feel satisfactory, loop back around and have another go at it. Maybe just in your head.
posted by phoeniciansailor at 7:08 PM on March 9, 2009

A few thoughts:

* To explain clearly, you need to be clear yourself about what you are trying to convey. That is why the second or third attempt will be better as your own internal clarity improves.
* Don't rush. If you are explaining something of relevance to the listener they will keep their attention on you. If you lose someone's attention it is because you didn't talk to their cares, not because you took a moment to select a word.
* Read and write a lot. Expand your vocabulary. By writing, you will have a way to enter back into the conversation with yourself. Notice your strengths and weaknesses.
* Know your audience. As many have mentioned, a good explanation is one that is effective for the listener.
* Read your audience. If you ever lose track of how your audience is reacting to your explanation, you are probably about to lose them as well. Expression, exclamations, body language are all queues to study.
* Don't try to prove your intelligence. The fastest way to lose an audience is to try to prove that you are the genius with the answers. Talk simply, clearly, and directly. Welcome the judgment of others and learn from it when that doesn't match your goals.
* Understand metaphor. The human mind is not purely logical and rational. There is popular theory that we understand everything as a relationship. I find this theory useful and find that effective metaphors can go a long way to explaining new things.
* Practice. Giving good explanations is a lifelong skill. You can always get better, and you'll never hit a limit if you keep working at it. You will have bad attempts and off days. That is part of the process too.

You will likely find that in some domains you are more comfortable than others, but enjoy the process of learning and keep at it. Good luck!
posted by meinvt at 8:19 PM on March 9, 2009

N'thing the idea of knowing your audience and sussing out what kind of answer they're looking for. If someone asks you a question, it's often useful to ask them one right back before diving into your answer: if your friend asks "What's reverse osmosis?", for example, ask them if they're trying to decide whether to buy a system for their drinking water, or whether they want to understand the physical chemistry of how it works. Figure out whether their interest is pragmatic or theoretical, and adjust your answer accordingly. Ask them periodically if you're making sense, or being helpful, etc, to guide your explanations.

For non-technical stuff like movie plots, you're not explaining something so much as telling a story. Just proceed the same way the movie lays it out: normally that means begin at the beginning and continue to the end. If the timeline of the movie is not linear, with flashbacks or something, follow the movie's timeline - moviemakers are professional storytellers and they know their art. (I know some people who are in such a hurry to get to the punchline that they start there, but without the setup, the finale won't make much sense.) The problem here is that it's easy to get bogged down in the details - you're trying to summarize an hour-long movie in 2 minutes, so you have to develop a sense of what's essential to the story arc. That just takes practice, maybe rehearsing your summary mentally before talking to anybody. And definitely check whether your friend is OK with spoilers first!
posted by Quietgal at 9:58 AM on March 10, 2009

Problem / Solution pairs in a narrative form.

The best documentaries (which are arguably about conveying information in an entertaining way) do this.

In 1492, there was a problem. Trade routes to India were long and difficult, and you could not get there by sea. A man named Christopher Columbus had a solution - sail west and around the world to arrive in the east. But he had a problem - his government would not finance his trip. Undaunted, Christopher set sail for Spain, where he promptly received funding and set sail ever westward. He found himself in a strange land with people he could only assume were from India, but there was a problem...

Problem / Solution. The problem is the hook that gets the listener listening, and you feed enough solution to get them to the next problem. Eventually the overall BIG problem is solved and the explanation is over.

Also, see this somewhat related thread on ask.mefi
posted by MesoFilter at 1:15 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

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