Re: Difficult Explanations

From: Adrian Tymes (
Date: Tue May 15 2001 - 12:08:35 MDT

Steve Davies wrote:
> Adrian Said
> >True. But if one practices explaining it to oneself as one would
> >explain it to a novice, or a child (if that metaphor is clearer), then
> >one can find ways to explain it to others easier...and, not
> >infrequently, come to understand it better oneself. At least, I have
> >used this technique myself when faced with confusing collections of
> >facts, and I feel that I understand those things better as a result,
> >though I am not certain how I could objectively test this. I have
> >found that for even the most difficult problems, repeating this
> >technique has allowed me to eventually boil anything I have tried it on
> >down to layman's terms. This happens most often through a combination
> >of finding commonly-used terms that adequately describe a concept, of
> >finding commonly known concepts with a small and clearly describable
> >set of differences from the concept being explained, and of determining
> >what large sections of complexity can be reduced to a few statements
> >while hiding the details from the basic explanation (with the
> >understanding that, if those details are desired, they can be requested
> >after the basics are digested).
> Isn't it a bit more complicated? The big problem with explaining something
> IMO is 1. what prior knowledge you assume on the part of the explainee 2.
> what vocabulary is avaiable for you to explain it in simple terms (what
> building blocks you have) The two clearly interact.

True. On the other hand, just by talking to a number of people, one
should be able to form a rough idea of the general public's knowledge
level in a given area. It helps to customize per audience.

> One of my worst ever
> experiences was trying to explain to an American what a "googly" is. Took me
> an entire afternoon, much drawing of diagrams and an exposition of the
> entire laws and basis of the game of cricket. The simple explanation "It's
> an offbreak bowled with a legbreak action" wouldn't do!

No, because "offbreak" and "legbreak" are also unfamiliar to your
target audience, as kinda is "bowled" in this context, so just expand
them out. How about "a ball with spin put on it when tossed towards
the wicket behind the batsman, so that it starts off veering away from
the batsman's side of the wicket then bounces off the ground and goes
towards the batsman's side"? Here, "wicket" and "batsman" are the
generic objects that can be explained further on request; their main
relevance here is their position relative to each other and the ball.

(This, BTW, is someone totally unfamiliar with cricket looking up the
terms in the first cricket dictionary Google returned: . I left off the "with a
legbreak action" because it seems intuitively that an offbreak action
and a legbreak action would be similar - just mirrors of each other -
by default, thus adding in that part of the definition adds unnecessary
complexity, unless there is some other type of action this must be
differentiated from.)

> That case also
> reveals another problem, misleading or irrelevant knowledge on the part of
> the explainee - it's more difficult to explain cricket to an American
> because they have misleading notions derived from baseball (exactly the same
> in reverse by the way).

Probably easier to model someone with no preconceptions - say, a remote
African villager who has never heard of cricket or baseball. If you
know there is misleading or irrelevant knowledge, try to steer your
explanation away from metaphors that would invoke same...or, if the
knowledge is greatly similar (and, honestly, cricket and baseball are
much more similar than, say, cricket and elephant herding), it may be
worthwhile to explain only the differences - but *only* those
differences that are directly relevant to what you wish to explain.
(For instance, the fact that a bowler must not straighten the elbow
while bowling, or the existence and roles of any players save the
bowler and batsman, is not directly relevant to defining a 'googly'.)
Remember: adding details makes the explanation take longer, and more
importantly, makes it harder to follow, so in the first pass, only add
those details you need. (Of course, balance this with the fact that
the details must remain available for the inquisitive, but only after
they have digested the beginning to their satisfaction.)

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