Communicating technical topics to people who do not have expertise in the subject matter: Part One

Have you ever struggled to understand what someone was saying when they were trying to communicate a complex topic in a subject matter where your expertise was limited? Conversely, have you ever had difficulties in explaining a complex idea to someone who did not have a background in the subject that you needed to discuss and they struggled to understand your explanations?

 

At first, communication seems so easy to do, but when you actually try to communicate, you realize just how difficult it is. There are a great many challenges that you might encounter. Here is a list of them:

  • First, most obvious of course is the person has a limited amount of technical knowledge and background in the subject matter. The difficulty here is that you need to explain it in a manner that the other person can understand what you are talking about. Equally important is that you do not want the person to feel “dumb” next to you. That can be quite a tightrope to walk. The other person already knows that they have less technical knowledge than you do. Not only do you have to explain the topic to them, you have to make them feel like an equal to you.
  • The next is that the other person has a neutral or perhaps in some cases, even a potentially even a hostile opinion towards the subject. For audiences with a hostile opinion, that can be difficult because they are already hostile and you do not want to offend them. At the same time, their hostility may come from ignorance (the Dunning Kruger Effect sadly is quite common), or perhaps their own limited knowledge.
  • Even more delicate is when the person (or the people) have higher rank than you. Although Western society has a lower “power distance” than many other cultures (something I am very grateful for), it can still be very intimidating to speak to someone who is your senior.
  • As hinted at previously, you may have multiple people. It is always more difficult to speak in front of a crowd, especially if you have any fears about speaking in public or to panels.
  • Finally, it makes you doubt yourself. You may doubt your own abilities to communicate, your ability to speak, and perhaps worst of all, the level of knowledge in the subject matter.

 

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it goes to show that the challenges are quite daunting. I am certain that if you were to think about this, you could add to this list. No wonder why so many people struggle with explaining ideas that although they may have great knowledge in, they cannot explain it very well.

 

Unfortunately for those who struggle, it is very common for people to have to explain technical ideas, decisions, concepts, and perhaps complex subjects to people who do not have technical experience in the subject at hand. This is common throughout both life and work. It is a skill that you need to have. Even those with a great deal of experience and knowledge in the subject matter sometimes struggle.

 

Here are several techniques that can work:

  • Analogies are often used because although imperfect, they provide a “good enough” approximation of the actual problem. I find that almost all topics can be explained through an analogy. The specific analogy you use will depend heavily of course on what you are trying to explain, but almost always, you can find something. One particularly effective method that I find is that you should use areas where that person has an area of expertise. Not only does that make them feel smarter, it can help them understand the concept more rapidly.
  • Many people are visual learners. That means having a drawing, a diagram, or an image of some sort can drastically help. I am a very visual learner myself, so I love the idea of having diagrams. You could have a white board, a projector, or barring that, even some simple paper can drastically help. You do not need exceptional artistic skills, but it does help if you have had previous experience drawing diagrams. Good handwriting that is easy to read can be a huge plus here as well.
  • Like with analogies, when explaining something, start with something that they have a very deep level of understand on and build on it. You could elaborate on the applications of the topic in their field of expertise or their job, which can motivate them to understand it more. We only keep a small percentage of what we do in our long-term memories, so you are very much fighting for memory space.
  • Give them something technical to play around with, such as a small object. The reason why is because first, kinesthetic learners do best with this method rather than watching you draw a diagram or listening. The other is that they are much more likely to actually understand something if they see direct value in what they have learned and when they have learned it through themselves rather than through you. Note of course that this requires that you are well prepared beforehand to give the listener(s) something to work with.
  • Also, learn to recognize when people actually want the details versus when they just want a quick summary. If they want a summary, they will ask you for questions where they want more detail.

 

Also, here are some important tips that you might want to know.

  • Whenever you go into a topic, try to avoid the complex jargon. Nothing turns people off more than complex jargon. It does not make you look intelligent. It does however make it nearly impossible for the other person on the receiving end to understand.
  • Look very closely at their facial expressions. Unless a person is very good at concealing their emotions and is actively trying to do so, you can often tell by the expression on their faces whether or not they understand the topic. You can also tell whether they may not agree with you, especially for complex topics, and whether or not they are actively engaged in what you are saying. Where there are large groups, try to get a general feel for what the consensus is amongst most of your listeners.
  • Where the listener(s) have difficulties, try something else. Do not actively backtrack, but in your next sentence, revisit the topic, but this time from a different angle. Keep doing that until the person truly understands.
  • Encourage the listener(s) to ask questions to you. The questions are always going to be about the particular details or areas that they struggled to understand. They may also have concerns that they feel you have left inadequately addressed. I find that often with a solid answer to the question, the doubts that a person had tend to go away much faster than with just them listening to you drone on and on.
  • Be humble. Admit the areas that you do not know when they have a question. I find that often acknowledging your own limitations can help because you are dealing with someone who is also insecure about their level of understand about a topic. By saying “I am unsure” yourself, at times, you can often make them feel better about themselves. That may seem intimidating at first, because are the one explaining after all, because you have more knowledge, but counter-intuitively, acknowledging your limitations can be immensely helpful.

 

Finally, give praise when they finally get something that they have struggled with. Remember, something that may have seemed easy for you may have been something that the other person struggled with. Just make sure that your praise is genuine or it could backfire badly. Whenever you give the praise, think about something that you struggled with and think about how you felt when you finally understood the topic. A few kind words can go a very long way. Not only have you helped someone learn something new today, but you have also made them feel like they accomplished something big.

 

I think that one of the reasons why many of the experts became recognized experts in many cases was not because they were necessarily the best in terms of their raw technical skills, productivity, or accomplishments. They earned their recognition because they were the best at communicating an idea out. That said, I do not think that there is a trade-off between communication and technical skills. I believe they go hand in hand. If anything, I find that when I explain complex concepts to other people, my knowledge of the subject becomes deeper. The reason is because when I explain something and especially if they ask good questions, it forces me to think about the topic. It makes me go back, to ask myself if I truly understand a topic, and if I do not, to look for the answers to questions that I may have overlooked.

 

Like so many other topics, I intend to expand on this in a future post. This is just Part One in a longer series of posts. This blog continues to expand a decent pace as I add new posts and there is just so much that I would love to write about, revisit in greater detail, and to share my perspectives. Until next time.

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