How to Explain Stuff Well
A methodology for reducing confusion
I recently rode an e-bike for the first time. What exactly is an e-bike, you ask? Good question. I didn’t know, either. If only someone could have explained it!
The rental manager at the e-bike store — a tall, gangly young dude with skinned knees — was in charge of ‘splaining stuff. He was the expert. I had no choice but to put myself in his hands.
Hank (not his real name) launched into his rapid-fire training spiel, ostensibly for the benefit of the riders (my companion and me). Sentences tumbled out of him in a rush. He knew his stuff, no doubt, which was part of the problem. He didn’t need to pause to process the information he thought he was sharing.
“So you’re familiar with standard eight-speed bikes,” he began. Am I? Have I ever ridden an eight-speed bike? How is it different from the bikes I’ve ridden with more gears? No time to ponder. Hank whizzed on.
“This is the throttle.” A throttle? On a bike? What is a throttle, anyway? What’s it for? Hank placed a finger on a little black trigger. He said words. I believe “speed” was one of the words; I couldn’t follow the rest because Hank quickly moved on to touching the gear shift levers. Perhaps he thought he explained how the gears worked, but I really don’t think he did, based on crucial information he seemed to withhold, which I discovered later. (Withholding is at the heart of bad explaining. People don’t usually do it on purpose.)
Next, Hank introduced a word beginning with “c.” A word I’d never heard. So much for my Master’s degree. I didn’t know why this word was so important. It had something to do with the way the e-bike operated, and this was a good thing, apparently. I believe that’s why he mentioned it several times. Later, I scoured e-bike literature online looking for this word. Couldn’t find it.
Hank moved on to “explain” how the battery worked and how it assisted, or boosted, your ride. He mentioned a bunch of numbers, all related to power, or speed, or both. I wasn’t sure.
At the end of Hank’s five-minute instructional monologue, I was about as clueless as the moment I’d walked into the store. My anxiety level rose, alongside creeping shame. I could not properly work this machine — though Hank had ostensibly explained it all. Was I stupid? I recall mumbling, at some point during his instruction, “I’m not very good at this…” That was a plea for help — a hidden request to slow down, give my brain a chance to process. Even my mechanically-inclined companion didn’t quite get it.
I could not properly work this machine — though Hank had ostensibly explained it all.
Flash forward: We got on the bikes, rode them for forty miles, and figured out how they worked. Experience is a superb teacher — but not always a substitute for clear, up-front instruction.
Ground Rules for Explaining Well
If you want to explain something well, follow these four considerations.
1. Begin with the big picture
One of Hank’s biggest mistakes was to begin by highlighting individual details on the bike. (Why do I need to know about the throttle first thing?) He should have begun orienting us to the big picture first: What happens when you pedal an e-bike? How does the rider control speed? From there, he could explain specific mechanical features that make the bike go.
LESSON: Always answer the “what” question before the “how” question. And the “why” question (as in, why does this work this way) should be avoided unless you’re specifically asked. Reach for easy metaphors everyone understands (as I do at the end of this essay).
2. Read the learner’s context clues
Hank could safely assume we already knew how to ride bikes. My companion walked in with his helmet on and we were clearly dressed to ride. That was our shared context: basic bike-riding knowledge. We said immediately we’d never ridden e-bikes. That was another key context clue. Hank was dealing with bike riders who’d never experienced a battery-powered bike. His big-picture explanation should have kicked off with this context in mind. He should have zeroed in on helping us understand the difference between a traditional bike and a battery-powered bike.
LESSON: Try to figure out what your learners need to know based on what they already know. Meet them where they are, then fill their knowledge void.
3. Use a commonly shared vocabulary
Hank used many words and concepts I did not understand as he “explained” the bike. And he spoke so fast, I didn’t have time to process much of what he said, anyway. There was that “c” word he used, which my companion could not recall, either. I actually had trouble hearing what Hank said after the mysterious “c” word because my brain kept stumbling on it.
LESSON: Don’t use jargon that isn’t part of everyday speech. Don’t assume that total strangers will understand your jargon. Ask yourself why any jargon is necessary in the first place. (It isn’t.)
4. Pace your instructions
Another of Hank’s mistakes was speaking too fast, moving rapidly through a lot of technical features about the bike, and never pausing for questions. He was open to questions, sure, but sometimes, when a lot of info comes at a learner fast, you don’t even know what to ask! What was I gonna say? “I still have no idea how to operate this bike”? Geez, was I a moron, or what?
LESSON: Your knowledge is not someone else’s knowledge. Stating what you already know doesn’t ensure that someone else will learn it. To truly educate, slow down, pause often, seek verbal and gestural confirmation that your message is getting across. Absent that, you’re simply talking.
So, what’s the difference between a traditional bicycle and an e-bike?
Here’s one way to answer that — a way to frame the big picture and nail down a core concept before drilling down to the details.
On a regular bike, the rider does all the work. On an e-bike, you control how much battery-powered assistance you want to make pedaling easier. Imagine biking up a hill with Superman behind you, gently nudging you forward every time it got hard to pedal. The e-bike lets you decide how much help Superman should provide as you pedal.
Now do you get it?
Amy L. Bernstein writes stories that let people feel while making them think. Learn more here.