Help- I'm so bad at explaining stuff!
May 31, 2017 3:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm terrible at explaining things, especially verbally. This includes story telling, explaining things at work, explaining what I do, etc. I'm not anti-social (actually am an extrovert that makes finding friends very easy) and think I can be pretty good for prepared speeches. Do you have some tips on improving?Classes/books/self-help.
posted by sandmanwv to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
For work: focus on impact/goal, give one simple example, and then let people ask questions if they want more info.

I helped someone at work with this recently (I'm a manager) - they tended to start at the beginning, rambled through with jumping around a lot as they remembered things, and it took an hour of listening and asking questions to figure out WHY DO WE CARE??? The things they do are great and important, but now with saying a lot less they are so much better received and understood (and it saves a lot of time).
posted by meepmeow at 3:33 PM on May 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's not much of a connection between explaining and making friends. (On the contrary -- lecturing folks isn't a great social approach.) What do you need to explain and to whom and in what context?

In general, assuming you do need to explain things to folks who depend on you for the explanation, say at work: it helps to start with the goal, or the greater context of what problem is being solved. Like if you're explaining (for instance) the company's new project, it helps to start with "because profits have flatlined, upper mgmt has asked us to figure out a way to reduce costs" rather than "we've got all these new initiatives this year to reduce costs..."
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:35 PM on May 31, 2017

You could visit a local Toastmasters club. Impromptu speaking is one of the things that members work on, not just prepared speeches (though there's certainly a lot of that.)
posted by asperity at 3:44 PM on May 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

One important element in good storytelling and explanation is to omit irrelevant detail, and mention only what's important. As Anton Chekov said, "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

Otherwise, specific advice will depend on what you have to explain and what problems your interlocutors have with your attempts.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:03 PM on May 31, 2017 [7 favorites]

Seconding Toastmasters.

My supervisor can be very hard to follow when he's describing or explaining something. For the important stuff that really needs to be successfully communicated and understood, I wish he would start with the end. Instead of 10 minutes of groundwork "As you know we are building a new widget department and Honcho is really concerned about quality and we've had difficulty finding candidates with widget experience. However we can't really pull widget-oriented staff from other departments because (lengthly explanation of corporate politics). The last time we started a new widget department was 7 years ago and back then (company history details)" start with "I need you to write a report on widget best practices for new hires in the new widget department." Now I know what the goal of the conversation is and that helps me ask the right questions and take the right notes.

However, there's more than one way that someone can be hard to follow, and it's not entirely clear what your specific challenge is.

I find that the better I understand something and the more I've thought and written about it in an organized, deliberate way, the better I can explain it to someone else.

Again, Toastmasters.
posted by bunderful at 4:24 PM on May 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

This morning in my academic writing lab my lecturer said one of the best ways to understand how to write (and talk!) in a direct manner is reading a lot of (good quality) newspaper articles. Short and to-the-point sentences, only containing information necessary to convey the point. Of course there are exceptions to this, and this is more in line with reports of things happening in the world, but the idea is there - a general, concise statement which encapsulates the topic followed by a brief explanation of the key points, and maybe an example to put it into context.

She also emphasises that people who read a lot, as in read a variety of things on a variety of topics, are better writers and communicators in general.
posted by BeeJiddy at 4:38 PM on May 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

This happens to me, as well. When I can remember to, I try to use a Rule of Three.

Sometimes, that means focusing a story into beginning, middle, and end. It might mean focusing on three parts of a situation and not going into the entire back story or every possibility. At work, it might mean that I approach someone for answers or explanations only after I have three relevant questions or example issues.
posted by redsparkler at 4:44 PM on May 31, 2017

If the things you're trying to explain are at all technical, try looking at "Writing for Story" by Jon Franklin. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the Baltimore Sun. He studied classic story structure to come up with a very succinct outlining and story-telling process.

Also if people have a hard time following you, you may be assuming too much knowledge on their part. Steven Pinker's "Sense of Style" might be good, especially the section about the curse of knowledge.

Both are, of course, books about writing. The reason I suggest them is that the main thing you need to do is tell a story. People's brains operate on stories, not on data or information or even instructions. So you need (stealing from Franklin here) a conflict or opportunity, then 2 or 3 things in order about what you did (or they should do) to solve the conflict or seize the opportunity, then a resolution that resolves the conflict or shows how you seized the opportunity.
posted by 1369ic at 4:47 PM on May 31, 2017 [10 favorites]

Thirding Toastmasters. I often send team members who have similar issues. Also, improv theater classes can help, since they force you to focus on the receiver and not the sender (you)
posted by frumiousb at 4:50 PM on May 31, 2017

Interactivity and feedback. This all depends on specifics of what's going wrong, but if you break up whatever you're explaining into bitesize pieces, and check in with your audience that they've understood each piece correctly, that should help. You need to be serious about the check in, though -- ideally you'd have people rephrase what you told them in their own words, for you to check if they've understood correctly.
posted by LizardBreath at 4:57 PM on May 31, 2017

one of the best ways to understand how to write (and talk!) in a direct manner is reading a lot of (good quality) newspaper articles

The BBC online is excellent for this -- the key point of the story is usually summarized in a single sentence at the start of the article.

The New York Times is the opposite of excellent, unfortunately. But it may be illuminating to compare the two different styles.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:17 PM on May 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

"On Writing Well" by William Zinsser is also excellent. The focus is short non-fiction and it's a very engaging read.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:20 PM on May 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I explain things for a living and my explanations start with deciding on the one thing I want to communicate and sticking to that thing. I train very non-technical people on how to use an application that is just dumb in its level of needless complexity. I do not tell them that there are actually three ways to accomplish the task. I make an executive decision about which of those three I'm going to talk about and I don't even mention the other two. Then I chunk the information into smaller pieces. If I'm writing documentation, I don't want more than 5 numbered steps in a row. If it's a complex task that takes more steps, I break the numbered steps up into stages.

You might be interested to read a little about cognitive load theory, if you feel that part of your problem is overwhelming people with too much information.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:43 PM on May 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm usually pretty terse, and I still give way too much detail and use way too many words explaining things - it's hard to be organized enough to edit on the fly. Begin with one sentence that sums up what you're explaining. Then give the minimum amount of detail necessary to complete the task. If there are more than about 3-4 steps, you should probably write it down.

Explaining what you do: you get one simple sentence. I got some benefit out of using the ten hundred most common words editor to explain my academic research. Assume less knowledge than you think. People will ask questions if they're interested.
posted by momus_window at 6:20 PM on May 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

The classic formula for giving a speech is "tell them what you're going to tell them - tell them - tell them what you told them." It works. You need to set up a context for what you are going to say. The challenge of explaining anything is that you already know so much about the subject that you skip steps that may not be obvious to the beginner. Even if it's a relatively easy thing you're explaining, this is a common failure mode, but forcing yourself to do a little summary at the beginning and end keeps things on track.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:40 PM on May 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm inclined to say that the best way to explain things is to thoroughly know what you are talking about.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:47 PM on May 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding jenfullmoon, also do you have audience goals in mind that are ahead of where you are at now? I tend to start out small, or with 'tamer' audiences and work up over the course of months to less friendly, seriously unresponsive one. A lot of my work is explaining agricultural research to farmers and it's applications.

Get a friend to read you talk out loud to look for errors. I always try and do a dry run in a large empty room as when I'm in the field - sometimes literally. I also find it helps if I can more around when I'm speaking, it helps you engage with your audience.
posted by unearthed at 8:01 PM on May 31, 2017

Just to address a prior question regarding the connection between explaining and social interaction: lecturing doesn't get you any friends, but a good story, well-to-do, is a skill. I know that people love hearing their own voice and it's good to ask people questions about themselves, but eventually you will have the floor, and telling an audience- and context- appropriate story is a way to use the time. I struggle with storytelling mightily and am watching this thread with interest.
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:27 PM on May 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just attended a conference and one of the sessions was called "The Art of Explanation", based on the book. It was really, really excellent. The basic gist:

1) Give context (why)
2) Give facts (how)
3) Give consequences (action)

And try to always keep in mind the other person/audience's perspective and develop empathy for it.
posted by wannabecounselor at 8:20 AM on June 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

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