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10 ways to explain things more effectively

In the course of your work, you may sometimes need to explain technical concepts to your customers. Having them understand you is important not only for technical reasons, but also to ensure customer satisfaction. Here are a few tips to help make your explanations more understandable and useful.

In the course of your work, you may sometimes need to explain technical concepts to your customers. Having them understand you is important not only for technical reasons, but also to ensure customer satisfaction. The ability to explain things clearly and effectively can help you in your career, as well. Here are a few tips to help make your explanations understandable and useful.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Keep in mind others' point of view

You've probably seen the famous illusion that looks like either a young woman or an old woman. Two people can look at that same picture, and they can have opposite views of what they're seeing. Keep this idea in mind when explaining a concept. Something that might be perfectly understandable to you might be incomprehensible to someone else. Don't be the person customers complain about as using "geek speak."

#2: Listen and respond to questions

It's easy to become annoyed when someone is asking questions. However, try to resist that reaction. A better attitude is to be happy that the other person is interested enough to ask questions. To minimize confusion and misunderstanding, try to paraphrase or summarize a question before you answer it. This step is particularly important if you're in a group setting, and you've just taken a question from someone in the audience. Repeating the question for the entire group helps everyone better understand your answer.

#3: Avoid talking over people's head

When you explain things to people, do their eyes glaze over? Chances are it's because you're talking over their head. Symptoms of such behavior include the use of jargon and acronyms. Remember, the people you're talking to probably lack your specialized knowledge, so you should use readily understandable terms.

The same goes for acronyms. They're important, but if you use them, define them in "longhand," followed by the acronyms in (parentheses), so that everyone's clear. Doing so avoids the scenario of situation normal, all fouled up (SNAFU).

Even within IT, the same acronym can mean different things. For example, both "active server page" and "application service provider" have the acronym ASP. A story from the Vietnam War era further illustrates this point. A young woman brought her boyfriend home to meet her father, a retired military officer. The woman was nervous because the boyfriend was a conscientious objector. When the father asked the young man to talk about himself, the latter replied, nervously, that he was a CO. The father clapped the young man on the back and congratulated him, thinking the latter was a commanding officer.

#4: Avoid talking down to people

Avoid the other extreme as well. Don't insult people by assuming that they're only as intelligent as a three-year-old. An attendee at one of my communications training classes described it aptly as "Barney communications."

Greek mythology has references to two monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, who sat on opposite sides of a narrow strait of water. If a ship sailed too close to Scylla, it was destroyed and the sailors eaten up. If the ship sailed too close to Charybdis, it was destroyed by a whirlpool that Charybdis created. The ship had to go right between them to survive. Follow that same principle with your customers: Make your explanations neither too complicated or too simple.

#5: Ask questions to determine people's understanding

The people you're talking to shouldn't be the only ones asking questions. You should be asking questions as well, to make sure they understand. Your questions can be open ended, which gives people a chance to provide detailed information, or they can be closed ended, which generally calls for a simple yes/no response. In either case, asking questions tells people that you're interested that they understand.

#6: Focus on benefits, not features

What's the difference? A feature is some inherent property of an object. A benefit, on the other hand, is a way the feature helps a person. For example, one of the features of a Styrofoam cup, because of the material used, is insulation. Someone who's planning a party probably doesn't care how the cup provides insulation. That person is more interested in the fact that such a cup keeps hot things hot and cold things cold.

In the same way, try to focus on benefits of technology rather than features of technology. This distinction becomes more important the higher the level of the person you're talking to. The CFO probably has little need to know about the specific commands and steps involved in setting up database mirroring. That person will want to know, however, that such a practice reduces the chances of data loss.

#7: Use analogies to make concepts clearer

An analogy involves explaining an unfamiliar concept in terms of a familiar one. For example, in drawing an analogy between a firewall and a bank teller, you could say that people don't just go directly into a bank and take money out. They go to the teller and identify themselves; the teller makes sure they have enough money; and then the teller gives them the money. Similarly, a firewall ensures that people who want access to a system really are permitted to have that access.

When choosing an example for an analogy, first figure out the general principle you're trying to explain. Then, choose something from real life that illustrates that principle. Say, for example, that you're trying to explain memory leaks. Suppose you conclude that the principle involved is that of taking without giving back completely. An example/analogy might be the consequences of pouring a cup of pancake batter into successive measuring cups, or the consequences of lending money to your brother-in-law.

#8: Compare new concepts to familiar ones

Another illustrative technique is to use a familiar or existing product as a comparison. If you're explaining a new release of a software product, the comparison is easy. Simply discuss the additional capabilities it has over the previous one or how key features are different. If the person hearing your explanation is also an IT person and is familiar with different or older technology, try explaining in those terms if you can. For example, when explaining thin clients, consider a comparison to the old 3270-type terminals that IBM once used for connection to mainframes.

#9: Use the concepts of subsets and supersets

Brooklyn is a subset of New York City, because all of it is a part of that city. Conversely, New York City is a superset of Brooklyn, because the former contains, in addition to all of the latter, other boroughs as well. These concepts are helpful in describing, for example, a "lite" versus a "professional" version of a software product. If the latter does everything the former does, plus more, it truly is a superset of the former, and the former is a subset of the latter. Be careful, though: If the "lite" version does even one thing that's missing from the professional version, there's no longer a subset/superset relationship.

#10: Confirm that your explanation makes sense

Once you've finished explaining your point or answering a question, ask a final question yourself. Make sure the people who heard your explanation truly did understand it. Consider asking them to give you the explanation in their own words, just to double-check.


About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

19 comments
kmurray
kmurray

How are you supposed to ask someone (and assume this is a group meeting here) to explain what you just said in their own words? And to ask them without sounding like their mother or teacher or just a plain jerk?

CaptBilly1Eye
CaptBilly1Eye

I find that a hammer to the side of the head to get their attention is sometimes most effective. ;-) Seriously, though... Good article. These are all tried and true methods for more successful communication. Rehearsing how you are planning to present an idea is really the key.

alxnsc
alxnsc

Some of the advices given are wrong. Analogies cannot be used to explain and never make things clearer. Some ancient thinker (BTW, the creator of the science of logics)states that analogy is not the way of the truth... One must not start with benefits and then outline properties. This makes most buyers and influential experts negatively react to your words as you waste their time instead of directly stating what your proposal (product) is about. Let me remind you some self defense gun trader's advertisement. "Buy Berretta Minx. Berreta kills." Laconic and clear. No analogies, no benefits, exclamations, no "poetry" but properties, no promises, no allure. Buy this to do what you need. Buy the right tool for the job...

Neil Leacy
Neil Leacy

Some vvery good points here, Calvin. Thank you. For me using analogies is sometimes the only way to make a user realise what a computer does for them. For instance I am always hearing people talk of disk space as 'memory'. The analogies I use to explain the difference between disk space and memory are as follows - Computer memory (RAM) is like the size of your desk. If you are doing some research and you have lots of reference books and papers you want to constantly refer too but only have a small desk you would soon fill that desk leaving you only a small space to actually work on. Books piled on each other would have to be slowly moved around, making sure you don't loose the order the books are in while you look for the info you want. Eventually you will knock stuff off your desk and it will 'crash' to the floor making you stop your research (this is when a small glimmer of understanding starts to appear in their eyes). More RAM (computer memory) is equivalent to having a much larger desk on which you can lay out all your reference material so that it can be got at quicker and easier and you can spread yourself around more with less fear of your reference materials 'crashing' to the floor. Therefore the bigger the desk (the more computer memory or RAM you have) the quicker you can work and the less likely your computer will crash (this is when a glimmer of understanding gets brighter). I explain that disk space is the same as 'cupboard space'. It is where you store things. The more cupboard space you have access too in your office the more papers, books, etc, you can store ready for easy retrieval; especially if you label the cupboards, files and folders properly (and this is when the glimmer of understanding becomes a shining light). What analogies does anyone use to explain the workings of computers, etc? Regards, Neil

dforcey
dforcey

When you are asking someone to explain what you just said to them, frame it in the context of wanting to be sure that YOUR communication was effective. Make sure they know it's not their intelligence or ability to comprehend that you're unsure of, just YOUR ability to properly communicate the idea.

PonderousMan
PonderousMan

The answer to this is to turn it on its head - don't ask someone to repeat themselves, try summarizing what you heard, and ask them if you got it right. The key is to simply state what it is you heard, trying to be clear and non-judgemental (of course that is the hard part - and it takes time to learn to do it well). This technique is called Active Listening (and a bunch of other things, depending on who's using it and why), and it's been used in many fields, from industrial management and gathering requirements to personal relationships. Once you learn to do it well, it can improve your communication dramatically. (One book I would highly recommend on this is Leadership Effectiveness Training (LET), I don't recall the author but you should be able to find it via Google.)

cmyers
cmyers

I would agree to a small extent, when talking about advertising and selling products. But we're talking about computer support and information technology, which is not as often or as easily understood by everyone. Besides, we're not talking about truth and knowledge here, we're talking about understanding and acceptance. You could explain all the concepts and hypotheses of Quantum Mechanics all day to me and I might get one or two, though probably not a full understanding of either. You relate those concepts to ones I am familiar with and the light bulb will go off. Explaining something to someone in unfamiliar terms will do little in the search for truth or understanding. You might as well be speaking a different language. But relate the explanation to something the person has experienced and understands implicitly, and you'll see they get it. I often have to explain "why the WAN is slow" to users who don't understand TCP/IP and congestion. Now, I could go in depth into the TCP/IP protocol to explain why congestion happens, and what the packets and routers are doing, but most users would quickly start searchig for an envelope cutter to slit their wrists. Instead, I relate the WAN to a lane change on the highway. There may be 4 lanes to permit a LOT of traffic (bandwidth) on the highway, but if it drops to two lanes, it congests the traffic and slows it down, because the same number of cars (packets) are trying to squeeze through a smaller space. Analogies help. They are not "poetry," but recognizable and relateable experiences that are more universally understood . Regards, ~CJ

brad
brad

Your example contradicts your argument. The benefit to the user of the gun is that it will kill the person attacking you. A feature of the gun would be how many rounds it holds, the fps of the bullet, safety features, size, etc. PS and that's why the USA has lower robbery rates than the other industrialized nations - concealed carry laws for responsible, trained adults.

WiseITOne
WiseITOne

Good point if you were attempting to sell a product but I believe the analogy was used so that an end user could grasp a concept and not be sold on a product. So what would you say Buy Crucial. Crucial is SPEED? Jesus Christ used analogies and stories all the time and I can't think of a better teacher.

zehawk
zehawk

"For instance I am always hearing people talk of disk space as 'memory'. The analogies I use to explain the difference between disk space and memory are as follows" Dude, back to school for you. Disk space IS memory, secondary memory as opposed to primary memory (RAM).

kmurray
kmurray

How *do* you ask some to summarize something you just explained without sounding like a jerk? I'm envisioning myself in a group meeting where I just explained something. I want to check if I've communicated my message so how do I ask "Joe Attendee" to summarize what I just said and not sound like a jerk?

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Hi, thanks, I appreciate your comment. There's a difference between asking "How clear was my explanation" vs. "Were you smart enough to understand my explanation" lol

Neil Leacy
Neil Leacy

Now that is a good analogy which I'll use next time we have a net problem. Cheers, Neil

jgnyc
jgnyc

An easy, EASY analogy for users re: disk space and memory: Hard drive storage is like your brain's long term memory; you file something and don't necessarily think about it again, but it's still there somewhere. RAM is like your short term memory; it's what you are thinking about right now. (If you need to go there, the paging file is just extra short term memory for when you're thinking really hard!)

ralphleask
ralphleask

Right! Disk space is secondary memory, but we are talking about helping non-tecnical people understand you. Use the term "secondary memory" with a user when he has trouble understanding what you mean by "memory" and you have just started down a path to logarithmically expand the gulf between the technician and the common user. Stick with your analogies, Neil, it is the right track.

PonderousMan
PonderousMan

Ah, so the dilemma here is not that you want to summarize what they said, but you want them to confirm that they understand you... Huh. I guess the Active Listening stuff I have read about always puts the ball in your court. I don't remember anything specifically about how to ask someone else to use active listening with you - though it's been a while since I looked at this. One idea that does come out of the books is that you can agree with the people you are working with that everyone will use active listening for communication. If you don't think you can ask for that, then try just using it from your side... if someone comments on what you said, echo it back to them, saying, "I want to make sure I am understanding what you are saying....". If you do this for a while, they may catch on that it could be helpful for them to do the same thing. Unfortunately, active listening is not a clear cut simple thing, there are a lot of aspects to it in terms of not getting "lost" in your response. Again, I would recommend the book "Leader Effectiveness Training" from the Gordon Institute, they do a great job with this. (Their web site is at http://www.gordontraining.com/index.html, you might find an FAQ or something that might help address your specific question...)

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

I use the anlogy of a construction site to help my users understand the difference in performance speed between memory, disk space and optical drives. I tell them that memory is like the construction site itself with the lumber and materials sitting on a pallet waiting to be used. The hardrive is like Home Depot with tons of lumber stacked up to the ceiling. The CD-ROM drive is like a forest full of trees. Imagine if a computer had a small amount of memory. It would be like a construction site with only a small amount of space to store the lumber and materials. They would quickly use up the space and would have to keep sending trucks back to Home Depot for more lumber. If that happens, it will take much longer to build the house. That's why computers with a little bit of memory are slow, because it has to get it's lumber from "Home Depot" which takes alot longer.

Neil Leacy
Neil Leacy

... my analogy tends to work as I usually use it in a persons office, pointing at their desk and cupboards at the time. Users physically seeing something they can relate to makes an analogy work better. Cheers, Neil

Neil Leacy
Neil Leacy

You took the words right out of my mouth. Cheers, Neil

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