Three Techniques to Improve How You Explain Technical Concepts

Guest: Anne Janzer, Author


In last week’s Build episode, we talked about why if somebody doesn’t understand your explanation for a technical concept, it’s not OK to just tell them to look it up or Google it. We also covered the effects of doing this, the main one being that you don’t come off as someone who is credible!

In today’s episode, we’re going to dive into the specific tactics for how you can explain abstract technical concepts to an audience of either lay people or one that may be a little bit more advanced.

Anne Janzer is back to help us out. Anne is a prolific author and recently published Writing To Be Understood: What Works and Why.

Here’s what you’ll learn as you watch today’s episode:

  • What things we need to take extra time to explain
  • How to gauge your audience’s level
  • How to handle mixed audiences and explain in a way that is inclusive
  • How to avoid “dumbing down” an explanation
  • Why writing out an explanation is harder than sharing it verbally
  • How to pick analogies that are going to resonate with your audience
  • Which contexts to apply these techniques to

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

Three Techniques to Improve How You Explain Technical Concepts to a Lay Audience and Be Understood Transcript (Raw)

Poornima Vijayashanker: In the previous episode of Build, we talked about why if somebody doesn’t understand your explanation for a technical concept, it’s not OK to just tell them to look it up or Google it, and if you missed the episode and the reasons why it’s important for you to explain, then I’ve included a link to it below. In today’s episode, we’re going to dive into the specific tactics for how you can explain abstract technical concepts to an audience of either lay people or one that may be a little bit more advanced. So, stay tuned.

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, we’ve been talking about the importance of breaking down abstract technical concepts as the person explaining them. In the last episode, we uncovered why it’s important as the explainer to take the time to explain things in a way that your audience is going to understand.

In today’s episode, we’re going to dive a little bit deeper to give you specific tactics that you can use the next time you’re presented with having to communicate something to a teammate or to a lay audience.

And to help us out, Anne Janzer is back. She is the author of a number of books that range on topics from writing to marketing, and she’s kind of a cognitive science geek. So, thanks again for joining us today, Anne.

Anne Janzer: Thanks for having me back.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So, I know in your upcoming book, you’ve got a range of techniques, and I want to kind of tease out just a few for our audience, and I know it focuses on writing, but I’m sure a lot of these techniques apply in a number of contexts. Maybe you can share with our audience some of the contexts that you think these techniques could apply to.

Anne Janzer: Really, yes, I think they apply any time you’ve got to communicate about a complicated topic to someone who doesn’t share the same background you have on that topic. So, it can be whether you’re writing an email to somebody or presenting to investors, maybe trying to explain to your family what the heck it is you do for a living.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Anne Janzer: That can be a challenge if you work in tech, I know. There’s all sorts of things, and it certainly applies to … most of this applies to writing as well as speaking. The challenge with writing that’s different than speaking is that when we’re speaking, I have my body language, I have my voice, and I can see if you’re checking out, checking your mail, or confused.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Why writing out an explanation is harder than sharing it verbally

Anne Janzer: It’s very obvious, and when I’m writing, the reader’s not present when I write, and the writer’s not present when they read. So, everything’s just on the paper. So, you have to work harder to really advocate for the reader as you are doing the work of planning and writing and revising so that it really, you can be almost present with them.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So, let’s talk about the things that we need to take extra time to explain.

Anne Janzer: Right, so, here’s the main thing. It’s abstract topics.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Janzer: Technology is itself just layers of abstraction, right, and you work in this silo of abstraction, and that person works in that silo of abstraction. Maybe I know storage, and you know Cloud infrastructure, right? They’re really related things, but they’re different things, and when people are faced with abstract ideas, this is part of human reasoning. We are animals that abstract things.

Anne Janzer: There’s a couch, and there’s a table, and they’re both furniture. Now, everybody’s comfortable if I talked about furniture, you know what I’m talking about, but when it gets to technology, you can get to the point where people aren’t comfortable with that, and so what we need to do is try to figure out a way how to take something that is abstract and sometimes intangible. It’s just an idea, and make it concrete so that people can understand it.

What things we need to take extra time to explain

Poornima Vijayashanker: Now, what are the specific things that we need to take extra time to explain?

Anne Janzer: So, when we work in the tech industry, we’re dealing with abstract ideas all the time, abstractions, and it’s just layers and layers and layers and abstractions, and so we come up with a lot of words and terms and jargon that is short hand, and it’s absolutely essential for us to communicate with each other, right, but it’s not always essential for us to communicate with someone outside of our field.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Janzer: And that is often the biggest barrier for people understanding what we’re talking about when we’re talking about technology, is the words that we use, the jargon and the abstractions that we use. So, that is the thing that the very low hanging fruit to take care of when you’re writing or speaking, is what abstractions and what jargon am I using that could cause problems?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I’ve also noticed for a lot of my students and audience that they may have something that’s internal to their company. So, yeah, sure something like HTML, okay, we get that that’s an abstraction because of the acronym. It’s kind of buzz wordy, but then they have something internal where they say, oh, we use this thing called an OKR, and they just assume everybody in their company knows it. Somebody on the outside’s like, OKR, what is that, right?

Anne Janzer: Right.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, so how can we kind of figure out what things we may think are specific to our organization or even our team, are not necessarily commonplace.

Anne Janzer: Yeah, so you have to get a little loose. I like to print out what I’ve written, and maybe highlight anything that is term, an abstraction, maybe anything that is abbreviated, capitalized, acronyms. You know what they are.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Anne Janzer: And for each of them, you need to ask two questions. Is it maybe, is it possibly unfamiliar to my audience, and is it necessary? So, if it’s necessary to use it, the only way to talk about it, or everybody talks about blockchain is blockchain, right? Okay, I had to use the word blockchain. There’s a law, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Anne Janzer: I have to use it. If it’s necessary to use it, but it might be unfamiliar, then it is on you to define it or show an example the first time you use it, or use it in such a clear context that there’s no confusion. If it’s unnecessary and unfamiliar, if there’s another way to use it, get rid of it. You’re just adding unnecessary cognitive load to the reader.

Anne Janzer: So, necessary or unnecessary, familiar or unfamiliar. I mean, you don’t have to strip out furniture. You know, you don’t have to strip out acronyms or things that people really should all know who are in your audience, but you do need to be anything that, yeah, maybe they know it, but maybe they haven’t encountered it that many times.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Anne Janzer: So, they’re going to have to do a little bit of extra work to fill in the blanks while they’re listening to you or reading.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So, is there a way we can gauge the audience level, because I know a lot of times people assume, well, I’m talking about this new framework, this new technology, and it’s in the title of my talk. This conference is about this talk. So, I just assume everyone coming here is going to know what this is. Why do I really need to take an extra 30 seconds, one minute, PowerPoint slide, et cetera to explain this? Won’t it seem like I’m “dumbing it down” for them?

How to avoid “dumbing down” an explanation

Anne Janzer: Yeah, right. I think you don’t want to dumb down for people. You want to respect their intelligence, but you also have to remember someone at the conference just came out of three other sessions. Someone picking up your article may be like, wait. Why do I want to read this? It’s in the title. I forgot. I mean, people come from very interruptive and context changing day, and you need to help them reset even if you think that everybody coming is showing up for that reason. They may not be. They may be showing up for other reasons as well.

So, it’s always worth trying to put yourself in the audience shoes for a moment, and say let’s say I’m new to this industry, and I’m showing up here to learn. What should I assume the people … what that person might know? What if you were on your second week of your job, and you show up at your talk, or you pick up your article? You want to help that person as well as the next one, right? You want to help your audience. You should be doing this to try to be understood, and you would like to be understood by them.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, or that person that got dragged to the talk, because hey, your buddy was like, this is going to be an amazing talk. I know the speaker, but you’re like I don’t know what this thing is.

Anne Janzer: Yep. Yep. If all goes well, you’ll be one of the speakers that people go to hear your talk even if they don’t know what your subject is about, because you’re so awesome as a speaker.

How to gauge your audience’s level

Poornima Vijayashanker: So, how do we know who’s going to show up, or how can we gauge the audience level before we write our post, our book, or give our talk?

Anne Janzer: I think we have to try to put ourselves in the seat of the audience, the mind of the audience. Try to figure out who the people might be, and answer these three questions about them. What do they already know? Where are they coming from? And give them a little range. Don’t assume everybody is at the top of the knowledge range there.

So, what do they already know? How do they feel about the topic? Are they there under duress? Are they there, because they’re really fascinated by it, because they think it’s a hot investment opportunity? I mean, there’s a lot of different things that could be motivating people to learn about your topic, and it’s interesting to know what they are. And what makes them curious? How can you engage their curiosity, and bring them in to learn more about what you’re trying to explain? Because when someone’s curious, they’re going to be paying more attention. They’re going to be coming with you as you explain your thing with them.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Anne Janzer: So, you have to give them a reason to be paying attention.

How to handle mixed audiences and explain in a way that is inclusive

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sometimes we’re in a mixed audience, though, where our teammates are there, some stakeholders, it’s internal, or we’re in an external conference or an event where there’s people of varying levels. We don’t necessarily want to bore the people who already know what we’re saying, and we also don’t want to talk down to the people who are beginners. So, how can we explain in a way that is inclusive?

Anne Janzer: Yes, that’s a challenge, and it’s something that you’re going to have to play with and balance, but I think it’s important to remember that nobody gets upset if you quickly define a term the first time you use it, and you can also use to guide people who are different ranges, by using an interesting example.

So, the people already know it find value from the example. People who don’t know it, learned it, hear what you’re saying. So, if you’re talking about artificial intelligence and recommendation algorithms, right? Most of your audience may know what that means, but a few may be just like … and then so you can say, you know, like when Netflix recommends, or the other day I went on Netflix, and I got a recommendation to check out this story. Now, you’ve anchored it in something that is an experience that everybody has. You’ve level set the people who weren’t so familiar with that term. You’ve brought them right back up, and you haven’t really bored the people who do know what it is.

It’s doesn’t take a heavy lecturey touch to do this. You can do it through an example, through a story.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So, I think that brings us to the first tactic. Let’s dive right in.

Technique #1: Why using analogies or metaphors helps people understand your technical explanation

Anne Janzer: Great. So, one of the first ways to explain technical concepts, this is something that you probably do instinctively all the time, which is to use an analogy. In fact, tech is just filled with metaphors and analogies. Like I said, we have files and folders, and we have, which there’s no real folders on your computer.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Anne Janzer: There is not little folder. It’s an icon, but it’s an analogy that we’re working with. So, metaphors, analogies, they can serve two things, actually. One is they can help explain what’s happening or give us a useful way to engage with stuff that is amorphous, and two, they can actually connect on a different level.

Anne Janzer: So, I found this metaphor the other day about, or analogy, about using units. It’s kind of like driving a stick shift car, right? So, it gives you more power, more control, but learning it can be kind of uncomfortable, and it takes a little while. So, now if you’ve ever driven a stick shift car-

Poornima Vijayashanker: I have, and I burned the clutch.

Anne Janzer: You’ve learned, or your burned a clutch, right. So, when I used that analogy, we had a shared experience, and you’re like, okay that makes sense to Unix, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Anne Janzer: That’s interesting, but you also, the part of you that’s listening to it probably, I did this thing with my hand, right? I have a physical memory of driving a stick shift. I have a physical memory of learning and the rabbit, the jumping thing that you do when you’re like burning a clutch.

So, if you were listening to me or if you were reading those words even, the little parts of your brain that are involved with the physical memories or the visual memories of seeing something, those parts of your brain fired. Metaphor actually connects on a way beyond just our reasoning, thinking mind. People in functional MRI’s, they show if they read a story, the action part, so their brains are actually firing as if they’re doing the thing that they’re reading about.

Anne Janzer: So, our brains are not really … we know rationally what’s metaphor, but we also sort of connect on a different level. Now, if that happened while you’re talking about Unix, that’s a win, right? You’re now more engaged. It’s a little bit interesting to you, right? You’ve gotten the meaning, but you’ve also just become a little bit more interested in sticking with the experience of reading or listening.

How to pick analogies that are going to resonate with your audience

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right, but I’ve also seen that backfire sometimes where you pick a metaphor, or you pick an example that you think the audience is going to get. Let’s just call a spade a spade, and say there’s a lot of sports analogies out there that get used, and the person on the receiving end’s like, I don’t know the first thing about baseball.

Anne Janzer: Yeah, or that’s like the 11th inning. It’s like no.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Or do you mean cricket? Yeah.

Anne Janzer: Exactly.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So, how do we know that our example or our metaphor that we choose is going to be universal?

Anne Janzer: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: How can we kind of test it out?

Anne Janzer: Yeah. Testing it is exactly the thing. I mean, the analogies work if there’s a shared experience. Sometimes you can have an analogy that isn’t a shared experience. I think about the book, The Black Swan, or use The Black Swan, the story of the black swan as an analogy for an unanticipated risk. Something we assumed we didn’t exist, because we didn’t see it, right?

Anne Janzer: That has to be explained. So, sometimes analogies are great, but it needs to be explained, but most of the time we want our metaphors to teach, not to need a lot of teaching.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Anne Janzer: So, we need to understand the audience. We need to be empathetic and understand where they’re coming from, and give a little explanation if we suspect there are cultural differences.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Janzer: And be aware, too, that metaphors, because they activate those other parts of our brain, if you use a metaphor of a clown, and your audience is people that have that clown phobia thing.

Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s true.

Anne Janzer: Do you know what I mean?

Poornima Vijayashanker: It might activate the wrong part.

Anne Janzer: You can activate the wrong things. Metaphors are powerful, and they can go in unexpected directions. So, be careful, especially across cultural. Working in tech is so multicultural. We need to be quite cautious with the metaphors that we use.

Technique #2: How storytelling helps an audience understand your explanation

Poornima Vijayashanker: And what about the second tactic?

Anne Janzer: The second tactic is, again, what we’re trying to do is make something that is abstract more real to the reader, to the listener, and one of the best ways to do that is through story.

Now, I was an English major in college, and when I was in freshman year, a couple of my friends took a creative writing class. They were also English majors, and I saw them terrified. Every time they had to turn in a story, they’d pull all nighters, and I said to myself, oh my God. Storytelling is scary. It’s stressful, and it makes you stay up all night. I am not doing any of that. Forget it. I’m a nonfiction writer. I’ll be a literature major, and I’ll go into technical writing, because there’s no story involved.

Anne Janzer: Well, so, years later of course, I was wrong. The best writers, when I read these books, I tell you the writers I admire who write about cognitive science, they use story incredibly effectively. They are not fiction writers. Story doesn’t mean fiction.

Anne Janzer: So, using story is a great way to connect with people, and it’s something that we all need to do. Like I just shared with you a story about my personal transformation through that story. It’s not that hard. I’m not a master storyteller. I didn’t follow a three act structure. I didn’t have rising and declining. I mean, you can do all that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Anne Janzer: But a story can be very simple. It could be a moment of time when you realized something. It could be a certain situation. The best advice, for me, I had to shed my preconceptions about storytelling and just try something very simple. Just experiment with it, and gradually get a little bit more confidence.

How short stories can help get your point across

Poornima Vijayashanker: I’ve noticed that especially with folks who are very technical, that I do a lot of public speaking coaching with, they have an aversion to starting with a story, because their preconceived notion is, oh, it’s going to be long winded. The audience is going to tune out, pull out their laptop, cell phone, whatever, and is this really necessary?

Why can’t I just cut to the chase and say today I’m going to talk about a distributed denial of service attack? Right? Yeah, okay, you kind of like cut to the chase.

People get it, but it’s so much more compelling if you were to say, six months ago, we were under attack. We were facing a distributed denial of service attack.

Anne Janzer: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And then all of a sudden, the audience is like, what’s that? That sounds terrible, right? And it’s just a very simple switch.

Anne Janzer: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Like you said, it doesn’t have to be long winded. So, how can we help our audience understand that when you’re presenting a story, it doesn’t have to be a poem. It doesn’t have to be 400 pages. It can be pithy.

Anne Janzer: Right, I mean, there are stories all around you. Any time you take an abstract technology and you look at a human interaction with it, there’s a potential for a story.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And use case.

Anne Janzer: I mean, a use case is a story.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

When to NOT tell a story

Anne Janzer: And actually, it’s more interesting the more…not a ten page use case. God, no. Just a little short blip of this person using this to do this. It can be a story. It doesn’t have to be…it shouldn’t be a long thing. And don’t give someone a story when they’re asking for data. That drives me nuts.

Anne Janzer: It’s like you go up and say, what happened to the sales last year? Let me tell you a story. Oh, God, don’t do that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Anne Janzer: I mean, a story has its role.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Anne Janzer: It’s not something that you should be overwhelming people with, but it’s a really powerful tool for either engaging their interest, engaging their curiosity, or explaining something, because they come along with you as they understand it.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So, you could say something like oh, the conversion rate went up 75%, or went down 75%. You want to know more? Happy to give you the details.

Anne Janzer: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

How being brief helps you build credibility

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. So, in the previous episode, we touched upon this desire to be long winded, and you mentioned how people often do it, because they want to come off as being credible. They worry, oh my gosh. If I take my 500 word bio and cut it down to 100, someone will miss something. They won’t know that I wrote 200 books, or that I met with the Dalai Lama, and that’s really important for being able to speak on Bitcoin. Right? So, how can we help our audience realize that it’s okay to be brief, and it’s not going to cost us our credibility?

Anne Janzer: Right. Yeah, it’s not going to cost you your credibility, and in fact, it’s probably going to increase your credibility. People, again, credibility is based on being understood, and when we include too much, people perceive it that we’re busy talking about us, and our needs, and not focusing on the reader’s needs.

Anne Janzer: So, if you are talking about Bitcoin, and you’re an expert on Bitcoin, then just craft a bio about Bitcoin. I mean, people can link and find out more about you-

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Anne Janzer: …if they are so interested. Get them curious about you to find out more. That’s awesome, but don’t throw out everything at them in the bio, and put some of that stuff in your bio as opposed to in the body of your talk. You don’t have to be, first let me tell you about my five startups or something, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Anne Janzer: I mean, people can look this up. You want to get them curious enough to look up the stuff rather than you feeding it to them, because if you think about everybody. We have so much stuff. I think that we’re all reading less and less online. So, if you show up with 50 really great words, people will read them. If they see a block of 300 words, they’re going to skip the whole thing.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Anne Janzer: I mean, if you want to be effective, be brief. Be concise, and give the reader what they’re looking for rather than what you feel you need to be saying.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So, it’s all about that topicality. What is it that the crux of the subject is, and how does your bio, your credibility fit into that?

Anne Janzer: Absolutely, and you will be credible if you show up and give them useful stuff. That’s going to be important.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So, what’s the final tactic?

Technique #3: How tone and style impact an audience’s understanding

Anne Janzer: So, the final tactic is to think about the tone and style that you’re writing in or speaking in. Now, tone is kind of like brand. It’s not something that you assert. It’s something that other people interpret, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Anne Janzer: So, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, that makes it really hard.

Anne Janzer: It makes it hard. It makes it hard. That’s why you actually have to get out and test your stuff. You have to test your writing. You have to test your speaking. You may think that you’re showing up one way, and people may be interpreting it another.

In speaking, we’ve got things to do, and you are expert in that to show up with a different tone, a different persona. In writing, all you’ve got is your words.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Anne Janzer: So, there’s some leverage that you can use in looking at, we’ve talked about them already, abstractions, the jargon. That has a huge impact on the tone of the written piece.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Anne Janzer: So, going through and stripping out unnecessary abstraction, stripping out unnecessary words, actually makes the piece stronger. Sometimes when we add words like very and really, it weakens our prose, which is crazy. So, I mean—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Qualifier words.

Anne Janzer: Qualifier words just go through and cut them out in revision. Make your thing stronger by being more to the point and quick. The sentence length, you know, sentences don’t have to go on for pages and pages. Short sentences. Not the way we speak, because obviously I ramble when I speak, but when I write, my sentences are short and to the point.

How to iterate and find your personal style

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Well, these are all great tactics. Now, I know it’s going to be a challenge, and it’s going to take some work, some iterations. The first time we try some of these tactics, we may fall flat. So, how can we go about iterating?

Anne Janzer: So, yeah, you’re going to need to find your personal balance for what feels comfortable for you, works with the subject, and meets the audience needs, and that balance may change with everything you do, every talk you give, every blog post you write may be a little bit different. Well, hopefully not every blog post, but you’re going to find your personal style and tone, and you’re going to have to test things out.

The other thing to remember, even while we talk about brevity, is repetition, that people don’t necessarily catch things the first time it goes past. In fact, they rarely catch things the first time it goes past.

Anne Janzer: So, if you can find a way to repeat, iterate within your talk, or iterate within your article, by repeating your message in a slightly different way, a different example. Eventually it’s going to sink in and have an effect. So, you may hit these readers with this thing, and these readers with a second occurrence, and these readers with a third occurrence when it’s expressed in a slightly different way.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Anne. This has been really helpful. I know our audience out there is going to get a lot of value, and will hopefully start to employ these tactics as they have to—

Anne Janzer: I hope so.

Poornima Vijayashanker: …communicate those difficult technical concepts, whether it’s inside their organization or outside.

Anne Janzer: I certainly hope so. Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So, how can our audience get in touch with you?

Anne Janzer: So, my website is my name. Anne with a silent E, Janzer, and you can find information there about the book, Understood, which is on Amazon and hopefully all the other places that you would buy books. We’ll see. And also I have a regular blog about writing. You can sign up for that there, and I’d be happy if anyone had any questions, wanted to reach out to me. I’d be happy to hear from you.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, wonderful. Well, we’ll be sure to include the links below the video and in the show notes.

Anne Janzer: Great, thanks.

Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s it for this week’s episode of Build. Be sure to share this episode with your friends, your teammates, and your boss, and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive more episodes of Build. Ciao for now.

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