How to explain anything to anyone: 4 steps to clearer communication

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

“Have you ever had this experience?” asks physicist Dominic Walliman in a TEDxEastVan Talk. “You’re having a chat with someone, and they’re telling you something about a subject they’re very interested in or they know a lot about, and you’re following along. Then, at some stage you realize you kind of lost the thread of what they’re saying … You realize you have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.”

When this has happened, you probably felt bad — like you just weren’t smart enough to understand what they were saying and you’ve wasted that person’s time.

Perhaps you’ve been on the other side, too. You were talking about something relatively complex and you could practically see the moment that your listener checked out. Not only is it uncomfortable but it’s also disheartening when what you’re saying is important, cool or valuable to the listener.

When you’re the speaker, “there are things you can do to improve this,” says Walliman. All you need to do is find a better way to explain your subject.

Walliman has made this a speciality — he writes children’s books and makes YouTube videos about quantum physics, nanotechnology, relativity, rocket science and other traditionally dense topics — and he’s come up with four principles that can help you effectively communicate complex concepts.

What’s more, he believes that more effective communication isn’t limited to the sciences. In fact, it can help all of us talk about the ideas, concepts, inventions and people that interest us. “I’ve come to the conclusion,” he says, “that you can pretty much explain anything to anybody, as long as you go about it the right way.”

1. Start off in the right place.

“Everyone’s got a different background, everyone’s got a different set of knowledge, and it’s our job to explain the information in terms that they already understand, “ says Walliman. “It’s no good leaving a gap and starting from there because they’re not going to follow along.”

If you’re in doubt about what your listener already knows or comprehends, simply ask. As you start to explain, he suggests, ask questions like “Do you already get this?” or “Is this making any sense?”

What if you’re talking to people who come from backgrounds that you’re not familiar with? If you’re speaking to a large group, “you have to make your best guess and a show of hands can be useful, too,” says Walliman. “It’s always better to err on the side of caution.”

Don’t worry too much about whether you’re telling the audience something they’ve already heard before. “People generally don’t mind,” says Waliman.

2. Don’t go too far down the rabbit hole.

Most of us love to learn — but we can absorb only so much at a time. Avoid bombarding people with too much knowledge at once. “It’s better to explain, say, three things that someone will understand … rather than barrage them with a whole load of information that kind of undoes all of your good work to begin with,” Walliman says.

Let’s say you and a friend are in an art museum. You see a painting you love — and one that you studied in college — but you can see that your friend doesn’t quite know what to make of it. You may feel tempted to explain every single thing you know about this particular work, telling her about the artist’s life and career, the materials and techniques used, the movement that the artist is part of, and so on.

Instead, try to focus on the bigger picture (pun intended). This can help your friend start to appreciate it. As an example, take Helen Frankenthaler’s Cool Summer (1962). Mention how, much like Jackson Pollock would drip paint, Frankenthaler would stain her canvases. Like Pollock’s dripping, staining was another cutting-edge technique of the time. Then, ask your friend to look at the painting as if it were a landscape. What kind of natural scene could be conveyed with those colors in those configurations?

3. Go for clarity over accuracy.

When we’re speaking about a subject we’re very knowledgeable about, we may tend to be carried away with the impulse to get everything “right.” Sometimes, though, an emphasis on the facts can occur at the expense of comprehension.

“It’s better to come up with a simpler explanation that maybe isn’t completely technically correct but it gets the point across,” Walliman says. Settle for establishing a basic understanding in them. If they want to know more, you can build upon that knowledge and create a more complete — and accurate — picture.

4. Explain why you think your subject is so cool.

“If you’re taking the time to explain something to someone, there’s probably a reason you’re doing it — either you think it’s super-important or very, very interesting,” says Walliman. And if it’s the latter, he adds, “the more you can convey that to someone, the more likely they are to remember it and get some value from it.”

So, ask yourself: “Why do I think this subject is so cool?”

The more you can communicate your enthusiasm to others, the more likely they are to feel that way too. One way to do this is give examples that demonstrate how the subject is relevant to their lives can bring it to life for them.

Figuring out how to best explain your subject may take trial and error, so don’t get discouraged about sharing what you know. Remember: Learning isn’t limited to understanding a subject, it can also be about grasping what you already know and understanding it in a way that will allow you to share it with those around you.

Watch his TEDxEastVan talk now: