Brayden Haws

January 26, 2023

Scratchpad Scribbles: Explain it like We Are All 5

During a math class in high school, I found a shortcut to solve a certain type of equation. I told the teacher and he asked me to explain it to him. I muttered and talked in circles, explaining it as unclearly as possible. He said I must have gotten lucky because what I explained shouldn’t work. But no matter how many equations he gave me I could get the answer. I wasn’t lucky (at least not in this case). He told me to walk through what I was doing on the board. That way he and the whole class could understand what I was doing, and we all could benefit. But at the board, I had the same problem. In my head, I knew exactly what I was doing but couldn’t explain it. Maybe I was making it up...

A few years later in college, we were studying the same topic. The professor clearly explained the method I had been using. Turns out that what I had been doing was a well-known approach. The difference between my high school experience and this college experience? The professor could explain what was going on in a clear and simple manner while I could not. My inability to explain an idea with clarity led to others doubting me (and to me doubting me).

This wasn’t a one-time thing. Even today I experienced something similar.  At work, there was a bug in the software. I thought I knew what the problem was. I could explain it in my head in a few seconds. But when I met up with a colleague to walk through it, the explanation wasn’t so clear. It took me close to 30 minutes to get them to understand what I was seeing. And the 30 minutes wasn’t due to their lack of comprehension. It was due to my lack of a simple explanation.

I’m sure I am not the only one who has been on the giving end of an experience like this. I have also been on the receiving end, and I am sure you have been too. We all struggle to put things into a context that others can understand. The world is complicated. We sometimes try to explain it at that same level of complication. Or think it can only be explained at that level of complication. But the truth is almost anything can be boiled down. There is always an easier way. It takes time and practice. The reason a professor could explain that equation to me like I was 5, was he had spent years clarifying his message.

We would all do well to explain everything like our audience is 5. And if you find yourself not being able to do so for a topic, spend some more time on it. Instead of wasting time (yours and the audience's) on a convoluted explanation, use that time to refine the message. Make it clear and simple. Something any 5-year-old (real or metaphorical) could understand.

(Taking my own medicine here. This piece could have used more simplifying before I released it. Hemingway says it's at a 10-year-old level. I should have tried to make it half as complicated. But it and I are still a work in progress.)

About Brayden Haws

Healthcare guy turned tech wannabe. Doing product stuff at Grow. Building Utah Product Guild⚒️. Constantly tinkering on my 🛻. Occasionally writing poor takes on product strategy and technology⬇️.

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