The Critical Importance of Explanation

Picture in your mind that you just developed a breakthrough business idea, and now it’s time to tell your friends, partners, and potential investors all about it. Next, picture yourself doing homework (not very difficult, I’d imagine), and your assignment involves writing an essay on a particular topic. Finally, picture yourself speaking with all the people you encounter on a day-to-day basis. Now ask yourself, what did the three of these situations all require from you while you lived them out?

It might not have been on the tip of your tongue, but “explanation” is one of the major components that is required from you in each of these situations. In fact, almost everything we do in life requires explanation when at least one other person is involved. And this high degree of frequency is exactly what makes great, clear explanation of critical importance to each of us. Just think of all the things that would be impossible if good explanation didn’t exist – school, work, training, writing, pitching ideas, brainstorming, collaborating; the list continues on into infinity.

As a result of this great importance and the fact that each of us explain things daily, I thought it would be a good idea to write about my techniques for explaining subjects in an easy to understand way. Sometimes complex, other times simple – my personal belief is that either type can become comprehendible when broken down into small enough pieces through logical explanation. And since, over many years,  I’ve had many people tell me that I have a knack for this sort of explanation, perhaps it would be beneficial to jot down a framework or techniques for such a topic. My mind began to think, and the following four bullet points are a few of the techniques I use.

1. Act as if you are explaining the subject to a version of yourself who doesn’t know a single thing about it. Unless you specifically know that the person or people you are communicating with know something about your subject, always start from scratch. By beginning your explanation with a clean slate, you’ll ensure that a more complete understanding of the topic is conveyed, while avoiding the disaster of completing a complex and time consuming explanation that is missing bricks in its foundation.

2. If your audience does know something about the subject at hand, you should still begin your explanation one level below their understanding. This will ensure that your audience can build upon their current understanding without creating a disconnect of information when you add onto it without properly “linking” what has already been learned and what will be learned.

3. Tell people what it is that you wish someone would have told you way back when you first learned about it. When you first learned about the subject at hand (perhaps years ago), there were likely things that you wished you knew about sooner than when you were told about them. Thoughts like “well I wish I had known that a long time ago!” are a great bank of inspiration to pull from. Think about what those specific facts were that would have helped you at the onset of learning, then incorporate those into your initial explanation of the topic when you communicate with others.

4. It is possible (and often wise) to break almost every topic down into multiple, small, sequential steps. First of all, the brain can capture small steps easier than large steps since there isn’t as much information being thrown at it. Second, even if your audience forgets the details of a particular step, they will most likely still remember that there is “a” step in the process at that point. This will allow them to more quickly re-learn the information while accurately placing it where it belongs in the architecture of your explanation. Quite the opposite occurs when an idea isn’t broken down into small pieces and some small piece is forgotten. Instead of being able to at least recall that the information is missing, the audience might not even miss it since the information is less structured and more closely resembles a blur.

You’ve probably used many or all of these tactics when explaining things to others, but I’ve found that taking time to examine the techniques of communication we so often use without question can be beneficial to both our success and the success of those around us. These four techniques are just a few of the ways that I like to explain things to people, and they have proven to be a great success. Give them a try and see what happens!

What did you think? Leave some feedback! :)

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