Getting your point across, plain and simple

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old you don’t understand it yourself.” Albert Einstein

Coming from Albert Einstein this point is particularly well made. Many more times I have heard this advice phrased as, “explain your project as you would to your grandmother or someone you just met at a dinner party.” The point is to first, keep it clear and second, engage the listener. Why is the latter as important? Because it is important for the listener to know your work matters. Oh…and your work should probably matter…if it doesn’t matter then why are you spending any time doing it, let alone telling me about it? A lot of stuff matters so chances are good that our work does too, and it is our not-so-easy task to explain why.

In fact, I find that the less someone understands what they do, the more likely they are to dismiss my curiosity – saying that it’s too complicated to explain or that I wouldn’t understand. But here again I refer to Einstein’s line – only I might modify this to: explain it to me like I am the six year old!

A lot of my progress as a scientist was in learning how to distill out the essential important points and communicate them. It turns out that this is a LOT harder than it sounds. Explaining concepts is at least as hard as using them at times! For this reason whenever I can, I use metaphors, illustrate examples using stories, or just show people with real objects because all that can be more effective than lecturing (i.e. prattling on).

I personally find it as challenging to clearly write my point out as to explain it out loud. there are several times when someone has read my paper drafts and said they couldn’t understand my point. So I would explain it to them out loud and they’d say, “Great! Write that.”

Maybe your strengths are in writing but you have trouble articulating your points out loud in conversation. I often script parts of my talks and practice them on willing friends and family. If the audience is unfamiliar with my branch of science…or science…all the better! If I can explain it to my mother-in-law, preferably without her eyes glazing over, then it works. If your audience doesn’t get it, chances are you are good that it’s on you and not them!

I think the problem is that we forget the years of hard work that we put in to understanding these concepts we now find so familiar. It means that we begin to take mental shortcuts – because explaining all the (now) obvious little steps takes too long. There is an old joke about a math professor that starts a proof on the classroom chalkboard and at a certain point and skips some steps, saying, it clearly follows that…and finishes the proof. A student raises their hand and says they don’t understand that bit he (or she!) didn’t show. The professor spends the rest of class struggling to work through those steps that were so obvious they didn’t merit board space. Silently he works until, finally, “Aha! There! As I said – it clearly follows!”

I picture and dowdy old professor rolling his eyes before deigning to show these “obvious” steps.

Well we are all guilty of this. I even do it to my 21 month old – which is so ridiculous of me because he has only just mastered basic skills like jumping with two feet and wiping his own nose 10% of the time. I forget how little he knows. I was trying to get him to put on his own sock. So obvious, right!? Wrong. I ended up breaking down the process of putting on a sock into 5 discrete behaviors – at least for a toddler with tiny and uncoordinated hands! Also, this is not including getting the sock out of the drawer!

1. Place two thumbs inside the top opening of the sock while holding it.
2. Stretch and bunch up sock into crook of thumb and pointer finger with fingers.
3. Place over the toes (all the toes!) and pull
4. Release your hand and reach around to tug on and pull over the heel of the foot
5. Pull at the top of the sock until it is fully on.

Needless to say, my little Einstein got to step 1 then put the sock in his mouth and grinned. Let’s call that an A-.

Have you ever tried explaining things to a toddler? Care to tell me how? No really…I need help!



4 thoughts on “Getting your point across, plain and simple

  1. Many children have lost their urge to put the “fun” in functional by the age of 6. If it is true that God has a sense of humor, scientists are better suited than poets to find the wry in rye bread.



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