“The Art of Explaining Stuff”

I read an article* today on The Art of Explaining Stuff. Explaining is what people in the communication fields do for a living, and we always like to learn how to do it better. The techniques listed in the article tied in well with what I’ve learned – and I thought back to where I first started learning them.

In my final 2 years of college, I took a series of classes from 2 master teachers: Bernard Riley and David Brokensha. Their teaching method made the material easy to learn and remember, and I felt deeply engaged and respected as a student. It was a powerful experience that I have never forgotten.

Each course was made up of a series of small units. Each unit would include lectures, slides, audio and film (state of the art for the 1980’s), Q&A, and the ability to review everything presented via the library and learning resource center. At the end of each 2-week period, there was a short quiz. Before the quiz, we attended an interactive study session to review the material.

This approach was a great big step forward for me in “how to learn.” It’s the process I still use whether I’m the “student” or “teacher” — I learn from my clients, and then help them communicate with their audience. The key to learning this way is to break things down into small chunks, put it in context, use as many of the senses as possible, and be trustable.

These methods are potent – and the more of them you use at a time, the easier it is to learn.

Break It Down

Break the information down into small, manageable pieces, and then check that each piece has been understood before going on. (And repeat.) This takes time, so you may have to adjust your learning objective when time is short.

Contextualize It

What is the context? What does the audience already know about this? Philosopher Mark Vernon says the approach of connecting ideas to what people already know goes back to Socrates. Additionally, focus on answering the viewer’s question: “Why should I care about this?” (“What’s in it for me?”). Connect it to their life. With scientific or other topics that may not have an obvious personal connection, ask them to think about the wider universe, how it works, and their relationship to it.

Put It In a Framework

What is the underlying concept? Before you can learn details, you have to know some generalities. For example, when learning a game, you don’t launch into a lengthy reading of the rules (well, not if you want to be invited to the next party certainly!) — instead, you tell a quick story about the game to familiarize people with it. For example, if you were to explain the game Monopoly, you might say: “you go around the board, buy properties, and charge people rent when they land on ‘your’ squares.” You don’t start off with “the board is comprised of forty spaces containing twenty-eight properties of twenty-two colored streets, four railroads, and two utilities.” That’s too much (and unnecessary) information, which leads to…

Keep It Simple

Focus on what is most important to learn at this stage. Don’t get too bogged down in detail. Know what to leave out. “You need to give them only what they need to know and point them to what they need to focus on,” says science journalist Quentin Cooper.

•    Use analogies if they help, but be aware that introducing a new topic can be confusing.

•    Keep the information straightforward and jargon-free.

Multiple Methods

Visual, aural, oral, kinesthetic (body) — use as many ways of learning as possible. Each person has their own preferred way of learning — and their weakest. If you only rely on one method, you’re limiting the opportunity to connect, and upping the chance the recipient will be frustrated and tune out.

•    Can your visuals include text, graphics and illustrations? Can they be animated? Can the viewer interact with them?

•    Can your message be spoken, listened to, sung, etc?

•    Can the new learning be practiced physically? For example, filling out a form (learning a new voting method), moving pieces of information around (learning a new software application), moving things around (learning a skill).

Be Trustable

Conveying honest information is part of respecting your audience and earning their respect — both now and in the future. This is especially important where scientific subjects are concerned. If you don’t know, say so (no one can know everything). If you can find out for them, do so, or suggest ways to find out. If something is ambiguous, say so — “It depends…” and then discuss why.

There is a definite art to teaching this way – it takes planning, dedication and empathy. The payoff is learning that is manageable, fun, and lasting — and respectful of the myriad ways humans learn. What an incredible gift for anyone, at any age.

* www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13195537


© 2011. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without written consent from the author, Moira Hill.



4 Responses to “The Art of Explaining Stuff”

  1. Karen Clark April 28, 2011 at 9:28 PM #

    Wow the timing of this is perfect! I think I am so eager to get information out there that I forget to slow down and gauge whether it is actually being received (or how well) and giving people a chance to let it soak in. Thanks for writing this up, it’s great!

  2. Moira Hill April 28, 2011 at 10:02 PM #

    Thanks Karen – I know you’re passionate about teaching well so glad it was useful. :)

  3. Les James May 2, 2011 at 8:55 PM #

    Good stuff. When I am on the receiving end, which is the likely case, I have learned a few things as a student. Of course public speaking cannot be overrated. I have seen lecturers who may have had plenty of good research, but most of it was lost in the communication. As a rule, I like a good story–more details the better. I have found myself dozing off only to perk up when the speaker (or perhaps writer) starts telling a story. For me it is like a blurry picture suddenly coming into focus. I simply cannot brook the spouting of generalities. I want to know a person’s experience with something. I suppose that good graphics are a plus. I saw a post on Facebook recently about how the exclusive use of Powerpoint on the part of NASA engineers may have played a part in the tragic destruction of the space shuttle that was damaged in liftoff.

  4. Moira Hill May 3, 2011 at 1:26 PM #

    I know what you mean – a good story immediately makes me take interest.

Leave a Reply