Poornima Vijayashanker

Why Doing a Bad Job of Explaining Technical Concepts Hurts Our Credibility


Confession time…

A few years ago when someone asked me to explain a technical concept and I couldn’t successfully get through to them or didn’t have time, I would send them this link. ;)

And it seemed funny the first couple of times I did it.

It wasn’t until someone did it to me that I realized how obnoxious it was. I eventually stopped asking for them for help, because I knew they weren’t very good at explaining things and didn’t have the patience to help me.

I also realized that I didn’t want to be like them. I needed to get better at explaining technical concepts. Ever since then, I’ve been on a quest to improve how I communicate technical concepts when I write and speak to people and audiences of varying levels.

Part of my discovery led to me Anne Janzer. Anne is a prolific author who has recently written a book called Writing To Be Understood: What Works And Why, and she’s also a cognitive science geek!

I sat down with Anne to debunk the misconception that if someone doesn’t understand a technical concept immediately, then it’s their fault. They’re too much of a layperson, and they should look it up. But it’s actually the explainer who needs to do a better job of explaining, and in today’s Build episode, we’ll explain why!

In next week’s episode, we’ll provide techniques on how you can get better at explaining technical concepts to a mixed audience or to a layperson.

As you watch today’s episode, you’ll learn the following:

  • Why people on the receiving end of an explanation find the explainer to be less smart if the explanation cannot be easily understood
  • Why people are bad at explaining technical concepts using simple language
  • Why we assume our audience knows what we’re talking about
  • Why people may not get our explanation
  • The three questions to ask yourself about your audience before you communicate with them
  • Why we have a tendency to overexplain
  • Why overexplaining isn’t helpful either and being brief is better

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

Why Doing a Bad Job of Explaining Technical Concepts Hurts Our Credibility Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: Welcome to Build, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker. In each episode, innovators and I debunk a number of myths and misconceptions related to building products, companies and your career in tech.

Now one huge misconception that we all face is that when we’re trying to explain a technical concept, if someone doesn’t immediately get it, we think, you know what, it’s their fault. They’re too much of a layperson, and we advise them to just look it up. Turns out, the person who’s explaining the technical concept, it’s actually their fault for not explaining it.

I know that might seem counterintuitive, but in today’s episode, we’re going to explain why the onus falls on the explainer and in a future episode, we’ll give you some techniques on how you can get better at explaining technical concepts to a mixed audience or to a lay person. And to help us out, I’ve invited Anne Janzer, who is the author of a number of books ranging from writing to marketing and she’s kind of a cognitive science geek. Thanks for joining us today, Anne.

Anne Janzer: Thanks for having me Poornima. I’m happy to be here.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So you’ve got a new book coming out and it’s all about explaining technical concepts and being understood. Maybe you can dive into the origin story for what inspired you to write this book.

Anne Janzer: Sure. So, the title of the book is Understood. So it’s about writing to be understood and it came from two things in my life. One, is that I spent a lot of my time in the technical industry as a freelance marketing writer working for dozens and dozens of different companies trying to explain these really geeky technologies to a business audience. So that’s familiar to most of the viewers.

But second, I also, as you said, I’m a bit of cognitive science geek so I love to read all these books about the brain and psychology and behavior and behavioral economics. You notice that some authors are really good at explaining this stuff. And you think, so there’s parallels between what they do and what I was doing, which is explaining complicated, abstract topics. So are some people just like born better at this? I don’t think so.

I took a close look at what these writers do, now I’ve called up and talked to some of them about what they do which is great. It turns out that there are just methods and techniques and approaches that we can all use to become better at being understood when we’re talking about something to people who don’t share our knowledge about it.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So it’s great that there all these experts who understand why this is important, but for our audience out there, they’re not sure why this is important. We can dive into that in a little more detail.

Why people on the receiving end of an explanation find the explainer to be less smart if the explanation cannot be easily understood

Anne Janzer: Yes. So you may not feel like…you may feel, well, I’m the expert. It’s not on me to make sure that everybody understands. It’s not my problem basically, if I’m explaining it. But it is your problem. It really is and the cognitive science shows that.

When you explain something that’s complicated and you use words or terms or even writing techniques that they don’t understand, you are giving the audience extra cognitive load. You’re making them do extra work, not to understand the thing that you’re saying, but even to get through to the thing that you’re trying to explain to them.

Research shows that when people experience cognitive load, certainly while reading, they don’t assume that the writer is smarter, they actually assume that the writer is less smart. So when they don’t get it, they don’t think, gee, I must be stupid, they think, they’re not so smart.

Anne Janzer: There’s a study by a guy named Daniel Oppenheimer, who’s now at Carnegie Mellon, but he did this back when he was at Princeton. I have to read the name of the study because it totally illustrates what it’s about. “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity or Problems with Using Long Words Unnecessarily.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. Yeah.

Anne Janzer: Which is great. And in the study they had people look at the same passage written two ways. One in a more straightforward way, one more complex using longer words or one piece sentence construction, let’s say. People who read the more complicated ones rated the author as being less intelligent.

In one case, even when they knew that the passage was by René Descartes. They were reading translations and they’re like, this is René Descartes from his meditations. They’re like yeah, he’s not that smart. If they read the more complicated one. So if you want to show up as being an expert you have to be understood. And it’s on you. It’s on you to do that.

Why people are bad at explaining technical concepts using simple language

Poornima Vijayashanker: So why do you think people get into this habit of being long-winded or maybe using big words?

Anne Janzer: I don’t mean to be critical of it, because we all do it. It’s a natural thing. If you work in a tech sector for a long time, you’re surrounded by people who are all using these abstractions and these terms. You master the complexity of the subject. You’re a part of a social group of people who have mastered that complexity. So it’s natural to want to speak in a way that people around you understand, use those words.

But you need to remember that these abstractions that now come easily to you. Like now you can ride a bike, but a toddler can’t ride a bike, looks up at the person riding the bike thinking, yeah, that looks really hard. So that’s the situation. That you’re really comfortable with these abstract terms, but if you’re talking to people outside of your domain, outside of your area, those terms are much more difficult to operate with.

Why we assume our audience knows what we’re talking about

Poornima Vijayashanker: So it’s natural to evolve and get into this in crowd or you’re surrounded by people who know. You kind of expect other people to know and then when they don’t, you’re kind of like, well, just Google it, right. So how can we get over this? This expectation that our audience just knows.

Anne Janzer: Well, we have to remember that we suffer from the curse of knowledge, which is hard for us to remember not knowing the things that we not now know. So some of the times it’s not that we’re being dismissive of our audience, we’re just assuming that they know the things. That these things are familiar to us are familiar to them.

So you really have to get outside of your own head for a moment and try to put yourself in the perspective of your audience. That’s why the title of my book is Understood. It’s not like, explaining, it’s understood, because it doesn’t matter what the words are coming out of your mouth or your pen. It matters how it sinks into the audience’s mind.

Why we need to incite curiosity in our audience

Poornima Vijayashanker: I don’t know about you, but I definitely had a few college professors, their names will go unnamed. In their 101 class, kind of expected me to know certain things or to, again, spend the time looking it up. So how can we combat that as well?

Anne Janzer: So that story drives me crazy because the purpose of a 101 class and the job of the professor of that class is to give people enough information but also to incite their curiosity so that they can learn enough to figure out if they want to pursue that field. If they want to learn more or what is useful to them from that class.

And in many ways, we all are in that same position as that 101 teacher. When we’re talking to people who aren’t familiar with our area, our job too, is not to tell them everything I know or expect them to step up to what we want to talk about. Our job is to incite their curiosity about our topic so that they’ll pay attention and get something and to give them a little bit more and to lead them into it. That’s a whole different way to think about explaining complicated stuff. It’s not like I’m going to dump all this stuff on you you need to know. It’s I’m going to pull into this topic and bit by bit get you interested in it, tell you how it applies to you and see what goes from there.

Why people may not get our explanation

Poornima Vijayashanker: So it’s good to know that we may suffer from the curse of knowledge and that not everyone is going to have a same level of expertise as us. What are some other things that may get in the way of people understanding when we communicate technical concepts to them?

Anne Janzer: There’s a couple things to be aware of and one is that sometimes people think they understand already and you have to work around their existing models of what’s happening. People think they understand what’s happening, for example, to their data when they go onto a website and use it and then go away. The data stays where they left it. Right?

And that’s not always the case. So sometimes they think they have an understanding of something. We always talk…if you think about how do you understand using storage. How is stuff stored on your computer? You think, well, I’ve got a disk, maybe you think you have a directory and then I have a folder and I put files in it. That’s nothing like what’s really happening underneath. The file may be distributed over many areas of the disk. Some stuff is not on disk, it’s in memory.

Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s in the cloud.

Anne Janzer: It’s in the cloud. You can’t come up to people and say no, you don’t know what’s going on, you’re wrong. So you need to understand what their understanding is and figure out how to work around that.

And then there are the topics that people, they want to cling to their understanding of it. They don’t want to hear about something that disrupts their understanding of it. That’s why, if you search for a swimsuit on a website and then you go to the New York Times and it’s serving you an ad for that swimsuit that you just searched for. It can be really distressing, these retargeting ads, because they show us something that we don’t want to hear about, which is that we’re leaving this huge digital wake of data around that people can use. We find that distressing because we don’t want to hear it, but it’s there.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So there’s the concept of challenging people’s current understanding and then there’s a concept of ignorance is bliss.

Anne Janzer: Yes, right, right.

Three questions to ask yourself about your audience before you communicate with them

Poornima Vijayashanker: So those are both things that we need to be aware of. How can we know…because I know in the next episode we’re going to dive into how to get around this. But how can we at least develop an awareness to know which camp our audience may be in?

Anne Janzer: That’s the key thing is to think about your audience. I think you need to answer three questions about your audience before you go to speak to them or before you write for them. It’s what do they already know about the subject and this requires that you put yourself in their perspective. You may have to talk to people that are like your audience.

How do they feel about your subject? Do they have resistance to hearing the message? Is this something that they like talking about? Are they curious or are they showing up for your talk under duress because they have to? That’s something you want to know too, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. My boss is making me come to this.

Anne Janzer: My boss is making me come to this. And the third thing is what makes them curious? What can you use to hook their interest in the topic? What going to make them want to explore more about it?

Why overexplaining isn’t helpful either and being brief is better

Poornima Vijayashanker: Now one final thing I’ve noticed, especially with a lot of my students and audience members is they can be on the flip side, where it’s not the case that they think they’re the expert, but they feel like they really need to go down this path and be very, very long winded about an explanation instead of favoring brevity. So how would you recommend to kind of balance that?

Anne Janzer: So there’s two things I want to get at. One is that you need to make a careful distinction between what you want to talk about and what the audience needs to hear. There may be a small overlap and maybe you can widen that by making them more curious, but you need to respect what their needs are. And that’s the hardest thing for us as writers to do.

When I worked on this draft, I wrote this whole section and I thought, this doesn’t serve the book. I had to delete 10,000 words and just put it aside because it wasn’t what the audience needed. It wasn’t what the readers needed. So that’s one thing.

Why we have a tendency to over-explain

And then second, I would look at the reason why they feel they need to explain everything and often I think it’s an attempt to assert some kind of credibility. Credibility is such an important issue, right?

It’s such a critical issue for speakers, for writers. But the way that we often go about asserting credibility can work against us. If you say, well, I’m going to get up and first I’m going to list off all my accomplishments so they know I’m serious. Or I’m going to just take them through every little experiment, every little process I did to get to this so they see that I worked really hard.

These things work against you because the root of the word credibility is believability. That’s what it means. Well, to be believed you have to first be understood. So to be credible, you need to be understandable and that means you’re going to have to cut out that stuff. People will respect you more, think more of you if they can really understand what you’re saying. So if you were meeting their needs rather than asserting your own. So if you come at it from that way, it gives you an understanding for how to be more brief. What to cut and why to cut it.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well thank you so much, Anne, for sharing why our explanations may be convoluted and of course, why we need to do a better job at explaining them. I can’t wait until our next episode where we’re going to dive into a number of techniques and tactics to help our audience out there when it comes to explaining these.

Now Anne and I want to know, when was the last time you had to explain something that was complicated, maybe some technical jargon. Were you misunderstood? And if you were, how did you get over that misunderstanding? What were your techniques? Let us know in the comments below this video. And that’s it for this episode of Build. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode where Anne and I are going to dive into some techniques to help you be more understood when you’re explaining those technical concepts to your audience and to your teammates. Ciao for now.

Build is produced as a partnership between Femgineer and Pivotal Tracker. San Francisco video production by StartMotionMEDIA.