Your burning desire to enlighten those around you thirsting for knowledge is useless unless you can clearly explain the information you’d like to share.
The problem is not your amount of knowledge; it’s how you distribute it.
Engage your internal translator
Consider world hunger for a moment.
There are nearly one billion malnourished people in the world. At the same
time, 40 million tons of food are wasted in the U.S. alone.
Although that wasted food could theoretically feed the hungry, the biggest problem is distribution — getting that food to people who need it.
Knowledge faces the same distribution obstacle.
Street smarts, book smarts, theoretical knowledge, practical knowledge — all of it becomes somewhat meaningless if people keep it to themselves, or if they try to explain it to others in a way that is difficult to understand.
Business coach Charlie Gilkey posed a question to me several years ago that has always stuck in my memory. He asked:
What’s the point of being smart if nobody understands what you have to say?
It’s far smarter to simplify your message and explain it in a way that’s accessible, while still maintaining nuance and accuracy, than to hoard information and grumble about how others just don’t understand — or worse, explain it in a convoluted way.
It’s likely you feel confident about explaining what you do. You answer readers’ common questions, use case studies, and tell engaging stories. But how do you convey information you’ve received from someone else — perhaps an industry leader, researcher, or person who works in a highly specialized field?
Enter the translator. Your internal translator, that is. In order to do your readers justice, you’ll need to explain elaborate information to them in a succinct way.
Here are seven steps I take that promote comprehension of complex subjects.
Step #1: Ask dumb questions
I spoke with two people for this post: a perfusionist named Travis Siffring, and a graduate student in aerospace engineering named Ilhan Garou, who designed a fault-tolerant controller for a multicopter to be sent to Mars.
When I spoke with Siffring, I began our conversation with a basic question: “What do you do?”
He told me that he runs the heart-lung bypass machine during heart surgery.
I followed up with a dumb question: “What’s a heart-lung bypass machine?”
Next, I asked the machine’s location in relation to a patient’s body, how long it can be used, and so forth.
You need to ask obvious questions (including ones that make you feel stupid) because it will provoke simple answers. If you act like you have a thorough understanding of a topic — when you don’t — the person you’re interviewing will use more complicated language.
To serve your ultimate goal of explaining new information to your audience, interview with a novice mindset.
Step #2: Create straightforward analogies
Ask additional questions to make sure you understand the answers to the questions you ask.
Compare and contrast an intricate subject to something well-known. How is it similar or different?
For example, when I spoke with Garou about octocopters, I asked if they were like drones. Then, when we talked about the octocopter’s controller, I asked if it was like a joystick for a remote-controlled car.
Verify that your analogies are accurate, and if so, they’re a great way to explain the concept to your readers.
Step #3: Get specific
Now that you’re familiar with the basics, it’s time to learn details.
During this step, I asked Garou, “Why do people use adaptive controllers?”
Although hundreds of years of research have proven that non-adaptive controllers are extremely safe, you also have to be more conservative when you use them. Adaptive controllers allow for riskier maneuvers, like tight or fast turns.
Adaptive controllers are also easier to operate and useful if you want to experiment, save money, or both.
This is a fun step: look for interesting stories that complement confusing job descriptions.
Although Siffring couldn’t share specific information because of medical privacy laws, he was able to speak in generalities.
He described a typical emergency room scenario:
A patient comes in and they’re having CPR done to them — everybody’s sort of running around: the nurses are trying to set up and get ready, we’re trying to get our machine ready, the surgeons are cutting the patient’s chest open so they can access the heart, and the anesthesiologist is doing his thing … it looks like total chaos, but with everybody doing something specific. Then you put the patient on the heart-lung machine, stabilize them, do the surgery, pretty soon you take him off, and three to four days later, you see him walking out of the hospital.
Ask experts what they wish someone would ask them or common misperceptions about their industry to get vivid answers.
Step #5: Eliminate jargon
Have someone else review your writing to make sure it’s accessible. One thing he or she can look for is whether or not the words you use are unnecessarily complicated.
One of my favorite editors, Joe Lazauskas, recently changed a complicated description I had written (“audience acquisition and retention”) to one that said the same thing in a simpler way (“building and sustaining a loyal audience”).
During our discussion, Garou pointed out that he changed the terminology he typically uses. He refers to hexacopters or octocopters as “systems” or “plants,” but those words wouldn’t make sense to someone outside his industry.
Cutting unnecessary jargon and complicated language helps people understand your writing better — clearly define a term or eliminate it.
Step #6: Fact-check
After you’ve removed vague language and revised your text, ask the expert you spoke with to review your content or have someone else in that field check to make sure your writing conveys the proper message.
This step minimizes factually inaccurate information.
Step #7: Present your material
Here’s an example of how I would describe perfusionist Travis Siffring:
Travis Siffring is a perfusionist — he operates a heart-lung bypass machine during heart surgery. A heart-lung bypass machine performs the function of the heart and lungs for a patient. It pumps blood, oxygenates blood, and removes carbon dioxide.
Operating a heart-lung bypass machine is different than CPR. CPR circulates blood by compressing the chest, making heart surgery impossible. There are some similarities, though. For example, both CPR and the heart-lung bypass machine help keep a person’s blood flowing in order to prevent brain damage.
During heart surgery, the surgeon hooks a big straw into the heart to drain blood away from the heart. The blood goes through the pump and the oxygenator, which is the artificial lung, and the pump then puts the blood back into the body. It circulates the blood even though the heart is stopped.
Perfusionists help cardiac surgeons operate on a still heart that is not beating.
Bonus step: Pay attention to feedback
You may think your description was extremely easy to understand, but others may still have difficulty with it.
Conversely, your description may be overly simplistic, and experts may think you missed important aspects.
Listen to feedback to help guide your future work.