An Overlooked Superpower: How to Explain Complex Concepts
The ability to effectively explain complex concepts isn’t just awesome. It’s a service to the world.
We live in a time with a lot of cool things to learn about. Here are just a few:
- Brain computer interfaces
- Space travel
- Artificial intelligence
- Language teaching with machine learning
Besides being interesting, all these topics have one key thing in common.
They’re all complicated.
Or at least they all sound complicated. The fact that they sound complicated prevents most of us from ever delving into them.
But the thing is, once we delve into these ideas and start understanding them, we start realizing how amazing they are and can’t imagine not knowing anything about them. When a concept really clicks, the entire world suddenly seems a little more exciting. If you know what I’m talking about, you know it’s an awesome feeling. It’s the kind of thing that can totally make your day.
And at least for me, usually when something clicks in my mind like that, it’s because someone explained it really well. Sometimes it’s in person, sometimes it’s in a textbook, and sometimes it’s because someone made a solid infographic and posted it on Medium. But somewhere behind things, there’s always a person who’s a good explainer.
Good explainers are epic.
The thing is, it’s not like people are just born being able to explain stuff well. It takes a lot of practice, and anyone can learn how to do it.
If you learn to explain things well, you can give tons of people all over the world their own amazing click moments about anything you want them to understand. That is a seriously powerful ability.
I don’t claim to be any kind of expert explainer, but I always seek to get better at explaining stuff. As I’ve started writing on Medium, I’ve discovered 5 really useful things to keep in mind that I think have made me a little better at explaining things, and I want to share these 5 things with you here.
1. Convince your audience that they’re capable of understanding your topic.
If you can do this successfully, you’re halfway there. This is also part of the reason that people who think that they can learn anything somehow seem to have a way of learning anything they put them mind to.
The key is to get your audience in a state of mind in which they can easily imagine themselves understanding a topic that they don’t yet understand.
To achieve this, there are several specific things that you can do.
If you’re explaining a concept that’s often associated with math, such as the inner workings of AI, then make it clear the depth of understanding the reader can achieve with their current math knowledge. Even if this level of understanding doesn’t seem very deep to you (as someone who knows the topic), being honest with your audience will help them develop realistic expectations for themselves. Such expectations will make learning about your topic feel more realistic to your audience, which makes it more likely that your audience will absorb what you’re saying.
Acknowledge that that topic is challenging. This is super important. If you’re explaining a complicated concept that’s challenging for your audience to understand, and you tell your audience that the topic is simple, then your audience will feel stupid. Even if you accidentally imply that the concept is simple, your audience will still feel stupid for not catching on quickly. Make it abundantly clear that the things you’re explaining take some time and mental effort to absorb.
Periodically summarize things to remind your audience how much they’ve learned by consuming even part of your explanation. If your audience is halfway through consuming your explanation and they realize that they already know way more than they did when they started, they’re very likely to want to hear the rest of what you have to say. To help spur these moments of realization, take mental “breathers” every once in a while where you comment on how far you and your audience have come.
The next four tips will also help convince your audience that they’re capable of understanding the concept you’re writing about. If your writing is decently clear, then instilling confidence in your readers may be the most important thing you can do.
2. Build a strong foundation before moving up.
Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has learned a staggering number of things throughout his life. Musk taught himself rocket science from textbooks and founded a space company. He built the world’s most popular electric car without any auto industry experience. He’s become an expert on solar power by mindfully interrogating engineers.
When people ask Musk how he did it, he often attributes his success to his strong grasp of “first principles” in each industry. Comparing learning to a tree, he always stresses the importance of developing a strong foundation of basic understanding before moving onto complicated concepts.
This is excellent general advice when it comes to explaining complex topics. The more complex the end of your explanation is, the simpler the beginning should be.
If you try to explain something without first giving your audience a proper foundation of understanding, the information has almost no chance in sticking in your audience’s mind, just like leaves have almost no chance of floating if you release them in midair. But if you gradually build up your audience’s understanding from the simplest level, then your audience will have the foundation they need to retain the information you give them, just as leaves easily stick on a sturdy tree.
This is how Elon Musk says he remembers so much. He has a strong enough foundational understanding of enough fields that he’s able to connect nearly anything new he learns to a whole network of things he already knows. This allows new information to stick in his brain easily.
We want to replicate this feeling in both ourselves as we research and in our readers’ minds.
- When researching, focus on giving yourself that foundational knowledge before even trying to explain anything. Don’t be afraid to go down rabbit holes online to reach the bedrock of understanding. It’s often deeper down that you expect.
- When explaining, start at bedrock understanding and work your way up. Even if your explanation is longer than it would have been if you had started closer to your final goal, your audience is more likely to stay engaged if they feel like they understand what you’re saying.
Finally, as you work your way up in your explanation, do your best to move in chunks. This lets your audience focus on one section at a time, which increases their confidence that they can understand the section they’re reading. It also gives them those periodic opportunities to realize that they’ve learned a lot halfway through your explanation, which increases their engagement.
3. Include drawings for technical concepts.
I have yet to meet somebody who doesn’t appreciate diagrams/drawings when they’re trying to learn something hard.
There are a few guidelines I’d suggest following to make your drawings as effective as possible.
- Simple does the job. Extra lines are confusing. Your audience should be able to make some sense of a chart or drawing within 5 seconds, and near-instantaneously is ideal.
- Stay unpretentious. It’s remarkable how far stick figures can get you. If you want to see well-placed stick figures in action, visit Tim Urban’s legendary blog, Wait But Why.
- Add some color! For maximum clarity, once you’ve used a color to represent one concept, use only that color for only that concept for the rest of your explanation. Deliberately bringing back a color from earlier in your explanation when you’re bringing back the same concept can be a great way to remind your audience what you were talking about.
Simple, colorful illustrations that are clear and sometimes border on childish can contrast very nicely with technical subject matter. They give your audience something to psychologically hang on to as you take them out to unknown worlds.
4. Build a narrative, if appropriate.
Humans respond well to stories that involve people. We evolved to be good at keeping track of people, and some linguists estimate that over 80% of the words that come out of our mouths each day can be considered gossip.
Building a narrative with characters–even a simple one–can have several powerful effects.
- Narratives give your story chronological structure. This structure makes it much easier for your readers to remember the flow of ideas that you’re seeking to communicate.
- Narratives make abstract ideas concrete. This concreteness is a great way to give your readers a bedrock of understanding, because bedrock understanding often involves simple interactions between people. This holds true for countless complex topics, from cybersecurity to international geopolitics.
- Narratives prompt emotions, which aid in memory. Competitive memory athletes succeed by making visualizations that are so emotionally vivid that they couldn’t possibly forget them. Many studies show that linking concepts to even simple emotions can embed these concepts deeper in our memories, and all narratives prompt some kind of emotion.
Don’t feel pressure to turn every single explanation you produce into a story. A narrative isn’t always the best format to use for a complex explanation, but it’s always something you should consider.
5. Use easily understandable language.
It’s important to tailor your writing style to be as easy to understand as possible. There’s not a single tone or register that you have to use, but you shouldn’t necessarily use the writing style that comes most naturally to you. Your tone and register should be a deliberate choice.
Personally, I try to use an informal register and a lighthearted, interested tone for my more technical articles. I think this combination of tone and register mimics an in-person explanation most effectively. If implemented well, reading good informal writing with stick figure drawings can feel a lot like listening to a great teacher explain something directly to you.
For pieces that involve data analysis, I deliberately switch to a slightly more formal register, because it’s important to be precise when discussing statistics. However, I try to keep my writing reasonably easy to understand for someone without much of a background in stats.
No matter what tone and register you select, there are several language tips that apply universally.
- Always explain technical terms. You don’t need to completely avoid technical terms; they can be super useful if you and your audience are on the same page about things. But always make sure to clearly introduce and explain them. Jargon can make an explanation incomprehensible very quickly.
- Avoid long sentences. If you’re explaining something complex, the ideas you’re communicating will be plenty to keep your audience’s mind occupied. Don’t make them decipher long sentences too.
- Don’t be afraid of short paragraphs. This is especially true on platforms like Medium, where short paragraphs are the norm. Short paragraphs do a good job at mimicking the pauses we naturally take when speaking, which make an explanation feel more conversational.
Just like anything else in life, explaining complex topics is something anyone can get good at with practice. The best way to get better at writing clear explanations is to practice a lot and constantly feedback!
Just remember that inducing click moments in others’ minds is truly one of the most powerful skills you can learn.