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How You Might Be Explaining Concepts Wrong

Explaining a difficult concept or topic is one of the toughest challenges in communication. While there are many ways miscommunication can happen, two errors are more common than most. 

The first is that the person explaining doesn’t understand what their listener knows. Thankfully, this has an easy fix: You only need to backtrack a little and figure out what terms and analogies they would be more comfortable with.

The other mistake people make when they introduce a concept is that they immediately begin to persuade their audience. Instead of helping the listener move from point A to B, some people tend to jump ahead and try to convince the listener that B is the best thing ever right away. Persuasion is not necessarily a bad thing, but your audience may be offended if you’re attempting to convince rather than inform. 

The Difference Between Explaining and Persuading

PersuasionExplanation
Combines facts with emotions to convince the listener that the speaker is “right” Offers facts, reasons, and evidence to support the speaker’s claims
Emotion-basedLogic-based
Ignores counter-claims Acknowledges opposing claims 
Presents only ideas that establish their  positionPresents multiple sides and weighs the pros and cons of each
May call a listener to action Uses narration, analogies, and other techniques to help get the idea across 

Persuasion is the process of presenting arguments that can move, motivate, or change your audience. In business, it’s the art of convincing others to change their point of view, agree to a commitment, or take a course of action. The most obvious form of persuasion is found in sales, where one’s job is to persuade someone to purchase a product or a service.

Explanation, on the other hand, is defined as a statement or account that makes something clear. Explanations are used for everything: technical concepts, business models, investment strategies, and so on. Compared to persuasion techniques, explanations don’t rely on emotions to convey facts. An explanation will focus more on how to clarify causes, contexts, and consequences rather than invite an audience to shift in behavior or opinion. 

Why Persuasion Doesn’t Help Explain Anything 

The problem with persuasion is the motive. When people explain something, it’s usually done with some empathy. For example, you explain to children because you want to make them aware about something. People who genuinely want others to be as informed as they are usually don’t expect a response from their audience. 

Persuasion leans more into salesmanship. The motive is to convince someone about something. In a worse light, persuasion sometimes crosses the line into manipulation. 

The essence of persuasion is understanding how people form their opinions so you can easily integrate facts into their mental models. This convinces them to buy into an idea and act on it. Manipulation is persuasion with the intention to deceive or control the other person into doing something that either leaves them harmed or without benefit. 

Obviously, no one appreciates being manipulated. This is when you try to explain something in a persuasive tone, people can feel insulted. Any rational person wants to hear the facts clearly before they make a decision and this is why people prefer simple and clear explanations. 

3 Ways To Explain A New Concept Clearly 

There are many techniques you can try if you genuinely want to explain something well. Ask any educator who knows how to keep their students from zoning out during a discussion: the key is to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. From there, you can imagine what they already know about the topic and how you can help them further their understanding. Here are three methods to help you explain concepts well: 

  1. The SEE-I Method

The SEE-I method is a critical thinking technique that helps people clarify their ideas. It allows you to further your ideas using strong examples that support or oppose the concept. With narrative and illustration, SEE-I is a great way to explain anything to anyone. 

SEE-I stands for “State It, Elaborate, Exemplify, Illustrate”. You begin with a concise summary or definition of the concept, elaborate with your own words, give examples and counterexamples, and finally illustrate the concept. 

  • State It: Clearly state the idea in a single sentence or two. For example: Grammar is a set of rules in a language and punctuation that helps maintain clear communication. 
  • Elaborate: Explain the idea further in your own words. Grammar is how we use words and punctuation to ensure that as many readers as possible accept the meaning of the text in the same way. 
  • Exemplify: Provide concrete examples and counterexamples of the concept. We know there is a difference between “She is cooking.” and “She will cook.”. Through grammar, we can agree that there is something happening right now versus something that will happen later. 
  • Illustrate: Provide a diagram, metaphor, analogy, or picture of the concept. Grammar is like the rules of the road. As long as we follow these rules, there will be less “accidents” (or miscommunication). 
  1. The Feynman Technique 

This technique is borrowed from Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who wanted to be sure he perfectly understood what he studied. We’ll adopt it as a method to explain things too. There are four steps:

  • Teach a child: We tend to trick ourselves that we “know” something by masking it with terminology or jargon. To combat this, imagine explaining a concept to a 12-year old child first. This will force you to simplify your language and really understand the core of what you are saying. 
  • Review: Once you have identified the gaps in your knowledge, you can figure out the parts you skipped that you need to connect. You can also edit out the less important parts to create a more coherent explanation.
  • Organize: Now you can create a simple narrative and read it out loud. If you aren’t confused by your own explanation, then you are on the right track.
  • Transmit: If you have your explanation ready, run it by someone who doesn’t know a lot about the topic and revise from there. Afterwards, you’ll be ready to explain everything easily. 
  1. The Walliman Method 

Dominic Walliman writes books for children. His topics are not about fairy tales or good morals; he writes about quantum physics, relativity, nanotechnology, rocket science and other complicated topics for 7-year olds. He offers four steps for clear communication:

  • Start in the right place: People definitely wouldn’t be able to follow along if there are gaps in their knowledge - and there will be gaps. Everyone comes from different places and educational backgrounds. Most people won’t mind hearing about something they have already heard before. 
  • Don’t barrage people with information: While people are eager to learn, there is only so much their brains can absorb in one sitting. Instead of overloading them with information, take a step back and paint the big picture for your audience first. The details can follow.
  • Choose clarity: If you’re an expert in your field, you can probably be very accurate about your facts. You want to get everything right. Walliman advises to come up with a simple explanation that can get the point across, even if it’s not technically correct. 
  • Explain what you think is cool: Conveying what you think is awesome and important about a topic will resonate with someone else. In fact, the thing you are most excited about is probably what they will remember after. Don’t forget to show your enthusiasm.

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