How To Effectively Explain Complicated Shitte

I have been reading an interesting booke called “The Art of Explanation”, by Lee Lefever. It is kind of a Web marketing book, but it also applies to the general task of effectively explaining complicated shitte to people with a broad range of prior expertise, including those who don’t know jacke fucken dicke. The basic concepts are shitte I have figured out over the years through experience, such as having empathy for your audience and trying to make them feel smart, not stupid.

One bit that I quite like is this list of guidelines for properly simplifying your explanations:

(1) Do not make assumptions about what people already know.

(2) Use the most basic knowledge possible.

(3) Zoom out and try to see the subject from the broadest perspective possible.

(4) Forget the details and exceptions and focus on big ideas.

(5) Be willing to trade accuracy for understanding.

(6) Connect the basic ideas to ideas the audience understands.

Other than #4 and #5, these principles should be applied by scientific presenters in all contexts and in unmitigated fashion. Depending on the specific context, #4 and #5 may need to be mitigated, such as in a lab meeting.


  1. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says

    (1) would actually rule out language…

  2. says

    See Spot.
    See Spot run.
    See Spot explain complicated shit.
    See the stupid people.
    See Spot explain complicated shit to the stupid people using facebook.
    See Spot give up in despair.

  3. says

    I agree.

    In my experience item (1) tends to be a real issue for many trainees. And far too many faculty. Yet it applies to every way we try to communicate what we’re doing (talks, papers, grants…).

  4. felicis says

    Number 1 and number 6 appear to contradict one another; how can you make a connection to ideas that the audience understands without making any assumptions about what people already know?

  5. Sam N says

    I detest seeing #5 without the caveat of you ALWAYS provide a disclaimer. E.g., “well viewing the problem this way will break down under other conditions, but this is a very good first pass at understanding it.”

    Just giving people inaccurate information without informing them that it’s inaccurate is way fucking unethical.

  6. fuckesatonne says

    @felicis: (1) means don’t assume your audience knows anything about the complicated topic you are talking about. (6) means start with basic ideas, preferably unrelated to the complicated topic at hand, that you know your audience will understand, and relate your complicated topic to those ideas.

    The trick here, of course, is to use human experience that everyone can understand, and to draw analogies to it to explain the complex shitte.

  7. janiceclanfield says

    Marcus Ranum
    May 1, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Spot? Who is this “Spot” of whom you speak?

    Why is he running?

    You are making my mind hurt.

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