How to Explain

There is so, so much value in how to explain what you do to other people. Because guess what – no one has any idea.

Pick a topic you know anything about. Now pick the most elementary fact within that field; the thing you think “everybody knows.” Nobody knows it! A random sampling of a thousand people would produce may one or two other people who know that fact.

All knowledge is highly specialized, which means that in general nobody has any idea what you’re talking about most of the time.

They nod along, make assumptions to fill in the gaps, or politely ignore most of what you say. If you’re trying to make a conversation into a substantial platform for real action, that won’t do. You can’t rely on anyone else to bridge that gap on their end – you have to bridge it from yours, in how you communicate.

Use analogies. People understand the things they understand, so link the thing you want to explain to something they already know about. There’s a reason sports analogies are so popular for… well, tons of stuff. Sports are popular, and lots of people understand the basic mechanics of the major sports in their culture.

Use examples. People are way better at understanding stories than they are at understanding theory. That’s why anecdotal evidence holds so much sway over people, even though it shouldn’t. But that quirk is to your advantage – tell a story about a time you did your thing. For the parts people don’t get, use analogies.

Connect it to a goal. The other reason sports analogies are popular is because sports are goal-oriented and have clear “achieved goal” versus “failed to achieve goal” conditions. If you’re trying to get something done, but people don’t even understand how to tell if you’ve succeeded, it can be very difficult for them to help you, or even to root for you. They can’t measure success. But if you say “the real home run here is if we get a meeting with Mr. Smith,” then people understand that’s a goal and it’s important.

Specifically, connect it to one of their goals. If you want other people’s understanding of your thing to lead to action on their part that benefits you, then you need to make sure they’re motivated. To do that, make sure they get how your thing will help them; that’s way more important than them understanding the thing itself. If I’m selling cars, you don’t need to know how a car engine works to be interested in buying one, you just need to know what a car will do for you.

You can do all of those things without talking down to someone, insulting their intelligence, or trying to over-inflate yourself. And if you do, well… that’s a home run.

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