How To Explain Complex Ideas To Those Who Don't Understand

How to Explain Complex Ideas (Like Tech) to Those Who Don't Understand

Whether you're the household tech support or just a research enthusiast, explaining complicated topics is tough. Here's how to do it in a way that people actually understand you.

Pictures: Danil Nevsky, Impassion Afghanistan, zaigee, XKCD, Ervins Strauhmanis, Clarence Risher

No matter what your profession, you probably have to explain complicated topics to people who struggle to understand. Maybe you're a scientist trying to explain DNA to your grandmother, a literature professor explaining metafiction to drinking buddy, or an IT professional explaining networking to your significant other. Regardless of what you're explaining, you can make it easier on yourself (and the person trying to learn). We'll use a few tech-related examples below, but these tips apply regardless of what you're explaining.

Ask Them If They Want to Learn

How to Explain Complex Ideas (Like Tech) to Those Who Don't Understand

This might sound silly, but the first thing you should do before jumping into a long-winded explanation of how something works is ask if the person wants to learn. Generally speaking, if they're interested, they'll learn better, focus more and actually take something away from the conversation.

This is especially the case with certain tech projects. For example, I recently had a friend ask for help setting up a Raspberry Pi as a retro game console. I gave him a list of parts and had him order everything. A few days later he showed up at my house with everything in a plastic bag. I pulled everything out, told him what it all was and how it worked before I started to walk him through the steps. As he reached for his phone to start playing a game, I quickly realised what was actually happening: He recruited me to set this up for him, not show him how to do it himself.

So, I asked him point blank: "Do you want to know how this works, or do you want me to just do it?" He replied, "I don't care, just make it work." I did, and sent him on his way. (Note: I generally don't recommend doing this, since now you're on the hook for tech support if they refuse to learn themselves.) Some people want you to do the work for them and can't be bothered with learning. Before you start, ask them what they really want.

Find Ways to Make It Matter to Them

How to Explain Complex Ideas (Like Tech) to Those Who Don't Understand

We tend to learn best when we're interested in something and we're interested in topics when they relate to us directly. When you're trying to explain a complicated topic to someone, it's best to play on that egocentric behaviour and show what's in it for them. For technology, you can usually play off of people's desire for security, privacy or simplicity.

Since you're here reading Lifehacker, we can probably assume that you pay attention to security and you use a password management tool like LastPass (if you aren't, you should). Anyone who keeps up tech news knows that a password management tool is necessary these days, but explaining that to a person who uses the same password for everything isn't as easy as you'd think. The trick is to find a way to make it matter to them.

If they hate forgetting their passwords all the time, I'd argue that a password manager makes their lives easier by storing all their passwords in one place. If they're worried about accounts getting hacked, I'd point out that a password manager makes their accounts safer. If they seemed interested, I'd go ahead and also pitch two-factor authentication and segue into talking about internet security as a whole.

You want to find the hook that catches them and go from there. Keep fishing until you find what matters and the rest of the explanation is easy.

Explain Concepts Using Details They Already Know

How to Explain Complex Ideas (Like Tech) to Those Who Don't Understand

The idea of connecting ideas to what someone already knows has been a common teaching technique since Socrates, but it works because it's one of the best ways to explain ideas. Essentially, as the BBC notes, you want find related information people already know and expand on that.

For example, some of my relatives have a hard time understanding what I do for a living -- they've never heard of a "blog". I could spend time talking about RSS feeds, what a post is, or how a content management system works. Or I could just describe it using terms they understand: "it's a magazine, but online" is enough that most people will understand the basic idea.

That's incredibly simplistic, but it gets the point across. The more you can pull from information people already have and analogies they already understand, the better they'll understand the core concepts you're showing them.

Know What Details to Leave Out

How to Explain Complex Ideas (Like Tech) to Those Who Don't Understand

When you understand a concept, it's easy to think of every detail as important, but when you're trying to explain that complicated concept to someone else, you should leave certain details out. Some things just aren't as important as they seem when you're learning a new topic, and you can always come back to those details later. For example, if you're explaining how a wireless network works, you'd start with the basic idea of what a router does, and leave out less important details like wireless channels or bands.

Your main objective is to get a point across and help someone understand a difficult concept. Strange terminology, names, or specific processes rarely matter. In most cases you can just say "cable" instead of "USB" or "website" instead of "URL". If they don't have direct bearing to the person's life or the idea you're explaining, skip over it.

Let Them Learn by Doing Whenever Possible

How to Explain Complex Ideas (Like Tech) to Those Who Don't Understand

Teaching someone is hard enough, but if you've ever tried to teach someone anything on the computer you know it's tough to just sit back while they fumble through it. However, if you want them to actually understand the concepts and learn, you have to let them do it themselves. Obviously this isn't always possible, but if you're teaching them something they can practise, let them do it.

Let's take a really simple example of setting up a new computer for the first time. It's incredibly easy to just run software updates, set up an email client, and download the best software for someone, but they'll be better off if you sit them down in front of the computer and talk them through each part.

So, resist the urge to grab the mouse and take over. Take a deep breathe and explain for the tenth time where the download folder is. The same goes for just about anything else -- from woodworking to fixing a car -- sit back and let them figure it out on their own.

The real trick with explaining complicated concepts to people is to find what works for them and build from there. Each of the above tricks are just that, tricks, and they won't work for everyone in every situation. Depending on what you're explaining and who you're explaining it to, you'll need to resort to different tactics.

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Comments

    What about teaching it in small self sustainable sections?

    If you do software support, you grow to use all of these areas instinctively.

    What about how to explain simple ideas to idiots? Unfortunately I encounter this problem far more often.

      Sadly you have to turn yourself into an idiot for a time so that you can work on the same level.
      And you need to remember to recover and get back to your own level afterwards.

        Whenever I do that everyone gets mad because I'm being "Condescending".

    All of my grandparents now understand e-mail as a sort of invisible electric post office that delivers to their computer instead of their mail box.

    it wasnt until i got into the work place that i realised how good i was at this and more importantly how bad most people are at it.

    the biggest one people have issues with is trying to explain everything at once
    keep to the required info and then expand later if wanted.

    of course the downside is in order to condense you need to really understand it well yourself

      Absolutely this.

      Also, I've found that finding someone who knows nothing about the subject and trying to explain it to them is the best self-test you'll ever get. If they don't understand it after you've explained it, then you don't know it well enough. (It can surprisingly also help if you've run into a problem, since sometimes you end up overlooking really simple issues that someone outside of the area might spot.)

    People handing me stuff and saying "Just make it work" is one of my pet hates. I'm happy to help someone learn, but if you want me to "just do it" then you have to "just pay me" or "just fucking google it".

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