The ability to explain things articulately and effectively can help you in your everyday life and your career.
But sometimes, even when you fully understand a concept or idea, you still have difficulty explaining it to other people.
Here are a few tips to help you communicate and be better at explaining things.
Table of Contents
- Make sure that the person you are speaking with wants or needs the explanation
- Find out what the other party knows already about the subject, and build from there
- Make sure you know the subject matter well enough
- Take care not to speak about the subject on an expert level
- When it comes to being better at explaining things, remember to put yourself in the other person’s shoes
- When in doubt, solicit questions and feedback
- Assess their current level of understanding on the matter
- Tell them why your explanation matters to them
- Utilize teaching and learning resouces
- Communicate that the listener also has some responsibility for his or her learning
- Take the learner into account
- It also helps to understand schemas of the learner
- Utilize analogies and metaphors
- Tailor your explanations to each individual client
- Listen carefully to what the person is asking you
- Consider what you need to communicate ahead of time
- Consider how to do it with maximum impact
- Practice in front of a mirror
- Think about who you’re explaining things to
- Focus on shared interests and areas of concern
- Take note of their perspective and try to build a common ground
- Think about it from their perspective and why they care about the topic
- To better explain, we first need to understand what needs explaining
- Consider the thoughts and feelings of the listener
- What you can do is to prepare what you have to say ahead of time
- Take a few notes
- Portray the right body language
- Step in the shoes of the receiver
- Keep it as simple as possible
- Use the questioning technique
- Try giving examples from real life
- Do not skirt around the topic
- Keep your explanation short
- Start with the “hows” before the “whys”
- Assess the listener’s knowledge and ability to understand before starting with the explanation
- Evaluate your audience or the person you are speaking to
- Choose your words carefully to match your audience
- Make it relatable
Kimberly Tucker, LMHC
Licensed Mental Health Therapist | Clinical Director, Pineapples Therapy
Make sure that the person you are speaking with wants or needs the explanation
As a woman, I have been “mansplained to” often without requesting the exchange. I am usually left feeling frustrated in those instances. Particularly when I have more experience in the area than the person who took it upon themselves to go on the tirade.
Find out what the other party knows already about the subject, and build from there
You will come off less pompous and the person you are speaking to will be enriched by the information you’re sharing, as opposed to just waiting for you to stop talking. You will lose the interest of the listener if you are rehashing information that they are familiar with.
Make sure you know the subject matter well enough
Once you know the other person actually wants to hear what you have to say, make sure that you really know the subject matter well. Richard Feynman said, “if you are unable to explain something so that a child can understand it, then YOU don’t understand it”.
It’s important when you are in the position of explaining that you come off as credible, or your message will be lost.
Take care not to speak about the subject on an expert level
When explaining something to people who don’t understand the subject as well as you, take care not to speak about the subject on an expert level. Chances are if you are having to explain it to the person, he or she doesn’t have as much experience in the subject as you do.
You may have your Ph.D. in the topic, but the listener is just looking for a layman’s understanding. So, instead of trying to give a Ph.D. dissertation level answer, meet the person where they are.
Charlene Walters, MBA, Ph.D.
Writer and Speaker | Business & Branding Mentor, Own Your Other
When it comes to being better at explaining things, remember to put yourself in the other person’s shoes
Think about their skill and knowledge level, and adjust your vocabulary and explanation accordingly. Try to break your explanation down into mini-steps or a simple sequence so that the information is easier to digest.
Remember that not everyone processes information the same way, so utilize a variety of methods including storytelling, providing verbal and visual cues, and frequently asking questions to clarify comprehension.
In general, the more collaborative the learning process, the better for retention and mastery so allow the person you are explaining to a chance to participate as you talk about the process.
When in doubt, solicit questions and feedback
In this way, you can gauge where your audience is in terms of understanding what you’re saying. In general, the more you practice your explanation style, the better you’ll become.
You can also do your homework by outlining your description on paper before delivering the actual explanation. Run through your presentation a few times in order to fine-tune it.
Know that it’s often a combination of trial and error until you find the method that best resonates with your audience so stick with it.
Terry B. McDougall, PCC, MBA
Executive & Career Coach, Terry B. McDougall Coaching | Author, “Winning the Game of Work”
Assess their current level of understanding on the matter
Before you start explaining anything it’s important to understand what someone’s current level of understanding is because your explanation is essentially a bridge from where they are to a new level of understanding.
This is where so many “mansplainers” go wrong — they make assumptions about someone’s level of understanding without asking! In those cases, it’s like building a bridge to nowhere to try to take someone on a journey they don’t want to go on.
Tell them why your explanation matters to them
After you get an understanding that the person wants an explanation and where they are in their current understanding, then you’ll want to tell them WHY this information is important then make sure you answer their who, what, where, when, and how.
I’ve also found that examples, stories and analogies can help people grasp concepts more quickly than getting super technical.
CEO, Cardinal Education
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”Albert Einstein
These words from Albert Einstein make it clear that understanding’ is an integral part of both learning and teaching.
In addition to understanding, communication is an integral part of how to be better at explaining things. As top education consultants, we use a 3-point communication system not just among colleagues, but also with our students.
In 3-point communication, the first person delivers the information, the second person hears the message and repeats it back to ensure that everyone not only heard the information but processed it and understood it.
It is crucial that we not just teach and tutor, but also make sure that our listeners understand and absorb information in the way that we intended to convey it without defensiveness. 3-point communication is a common practice in stressful or dangerous situations and an incredible tool for teaching.
Utilize teaching and learning resouces
Also, we regularly make use of teaching and learning resources such as diagrams and visual aids wherever possible to stimulate, motivate, and focus learners’ attention during the instructional process. Visual aids arouse the interest of learners and help teachers to explain the concepts easily.
Additionally, recalling and structuring information in a framework with a logical flow with a ‘conclusion’ to give the full picture to the receiver of the information further induces clarity and understanding.
Communicate that the listener also has some responsibility for his or her learning
Finally, we clearly communicate that the student also has some responsibility for his or her education. If a student does not understand an explanation, it is important to stand up in the moment and articulate what they understood and what they did not. Students have to give your teacher an opportunity to explain again.
It is a teacher’s responsibility to impart knowledge and learning and help the students understand, while it is the student’s responsibility to put effort into their own learning.
HarperCollins Leadership Author | Founder & Executive Director, Professionals In Transition
- Slow down and think about who you are explaining to. Adjust your explanation to the audience you are addressing.
- People think in images. Before you start, think of an image. You could say: “It’s kind of like a (name of the image) only you (provide an answer in a way they can see it.)”
- Pay attention to their body language. Do they look confused? Sometimes if you are in a position of power, the person you are explaining a concept to may be too intimidated to admit that they don’t understand your explanation.
- Finally, ask them to explain what they just heard you say. Sometimes you’ll be amazed at what they misheard you say.
Doctoral Student, School of Education | Teaching Assistant, University of Missouri – Columbia
Take the learner into account
In order to become better at explaining things, you have to take into account the learner (e.g., age, schemas), the content (e.g., simple vs. complex concept), the context (e.g., classroom), and the modality of the explanation (e.g., audio-only vs. illustrative).
The learner could be a traditional or nontraditional student, an employee at a training workshop, or your best friend that really wants to learn how to solve a rubric’s cube.
Nevertheless, taking into account the age of the learner provides insight into their cognitive processes. How might they think? Will they be able to understand abstract ideas? Will they be able to decode and understand the jargon you may use? Which modality of the explanation will serve their comprehension better?
It also helps to understand schemas of the learner
Understanding schemas, they might hold, allows you to craft an explanation that engages their prior knowledge. Schemas are organized concepts, frameworks, and ideas of knowledge one have obtained.
For instance, asking someone to describe a classroom or a park activates their schematic idea of what it is and how it looks. When we can map new concepts on to existing knowledge we not only help individuals understand things better but retain the information better as well.
The modality of the explanation is shaped by the learner’s characteristics, content, and context.
There are many different approaches to teaching and when you’re explaining something you are essentially teaching. The complexities of what you’re teaching along with the resources provided by the context you’re teaching in and the learner’s experiences will directly impact the quality of your explanation.
For example, teaching someone how to change out the brakes on a car may require an illustrative or visual demonstration along with your explanation.
However, for those that are mechanics, you may only need to talk them through it because you can map a lot of information on to their schematic blueprints of the relevant mechanical features for that task.
Utilize analogies and metaphors
Analogies and metaphors are also powerful in transforming even complex concepts into easily understood subsets of an idea but it is not without assumptions.
When using either of the mentioned, one assumes –unless they have taken the learner’s characteristics into account- that the learner understands the vocabulary or interplay between discussed relationships.
For example, saying to first graders the exponent is to the base number like repeated addition. Well, what’s a base number? What’s an exponent? What’s repeated addition?
Being better at explaining things is more than just having effective communication skills.
It also means assessing the learner, identifying when and which modality to use, and taking the time to check for understanding.
Jordan W. Peagler, Esq.
Founder and Partner, MKP Law Group
As an attorney, when speaking to a client it can be easy to forget that oftentimes this is the client’s first experience dealing with a lawyer and they are entirely unfamiliar with the legal process and legal terms.
Things that seem fairly basic to me, like having to serve a party after filing a lawsuit are often an entirely foreign concept to the client. That’s why being able to explain complicated things, like the legal system and legal process, to laypeople is a valuable skill for professionals.
Tailor your explanations to each individual client
One thing that has helped me explain things better to my clients is understanding that I cannot give cookie-cutter responses or explanations in every circumstance. Each client has a different background and knowledge level, as well as a unique case. So, I need to tailor my explanations to each individual client.
Understanding what the person is looking to get out of your conversation can also help you cover just the topics that actually need explaining. For example, a client who was injured in a car accident may only be interested in getting their vehicle repaired and their medical bills paid for.
In that situation, there is no need to give a ten-minute explanation about the costs of filing a lawsuit with the court, hiring a process server and then engaging in discovery and taking depositions; those are all things the client would expect me to handle without needing to brief them every step of the way.
Tailoring your explanations to the individual you are explaining things to is a critical skill.
Listen carefully to what the person is asking you
Another skill to keep in mind when trying to enhance your ability to explain complex matters to people is to listen to what the person is asking you.
Oftentimes clients start to ask me a question and I’ll jump in before they fully finish their thought, thinking I know where their question is going only to learn they were actually asking me something entirely different.
Fully understanding their question or issue will allow you to better explain it to them.
Before starting my firm, I was lucky to be in a hybrid associate position where I still litigated files but also worked closely with the managing partner handling more business and client-related matters.
I was exposed to conversations the managing partner had with a client and learned how to deal with needy or troublesome clients and how they responded to the clients’ concerns.
Since starting my own firm, I have continued to call my former boss when I need help in difficult situations and need insight on how to explain that situation to the client.
Your ability to communicate and explain information to other people in the workplace is worth its weight in gold.
Consider what you need to communicate ahead of time
One of the best ways to revamp your communication skills is to always consider what you need to communicate ahead of time. While there are quite a few people that can find the right words and effortlessly explain complex ideas to colleagues or supervisors, others aren’t so good at it.
Consider how to do it with maximum impact
To step around this issue, think ahead of time and consider what you’ll need to explain and how you’ll do it for maximum impact.
You don’t need to have a full-fledged speech written down. In fact, a quick list of key bullet points with your key message will do the trick.
Practice in front of a mirror
Lastly, if you’re going to explain things to the higher management and you know your anxiety levels tend to shoot out in such situation, you may want to talk to yourself in a mirror, so that you could see how you can articulate your message and work on your body language.
It’ll help build up your confidence, and you’ll explain things in a much more structured way.
Melissa Cadwallader, MBA, PHR
HR Lead, ZenBusiness
Think about who you’re explaining things to
How much knowledge do they have of the topic? How old are they and what are their main areas of interest? These are the types of questions that you should consider before you begin writing or speaking.
It’s really important that the explanation engages the audience at their level.
However, you should be careful not to come across as patronizing or condescending. If you’re at all unsure whether the audience has fully understood your explanation, then just ask. Be better at explaining things by explaining differently to different people.
You won’t be able to account for the characteristics of each audience member when it comes to the preparation of a speech or document for circulation. However, you should focus on shared interests and areas of concern.
You might well find that it helps to create an audience persona or “pen portrait” for focus and clarity in your communication.
Such a persona should be as detailed as possible; focusing on characteristics including the age, marital status, profession, political beliefs, and entertainment choices of your ideal customer. You could even draw a picture of the customer for added focus.
Audience characteristics should have a bearing on everything from the choice of words to the tone that you adopt when delivering a speech. If you’re confident that the audience has a high level of understanding then you may include technical terms, with little explanation.
However, there should be an opportunity to answer questions and clear up any areas of misunderstanding. You should take the opportunity to practice your spoken delivery and ask a trusted colleague for a second opinion where possible.
Here are a few tips for desirable audience engagement:
- Weave in storytelling elements, including metaphors and symbols.
- Repeat key points for added emphasis.
- Include visuals for added interest and improved understanding.
- Quiz the audience on what they’ve learnt.
- Give a short summary of the information covered.
- Use humour if certain that it will go down well.
Senior Vice President & Head of Operations, Zety
One of the keys to best explain things to others is to take into account a very basic concept: perspectivism. We approach every problem, fact, or concept from a given perspective, with our own biases and motivations.
Take note of their perspective and try to build a common ground
When trying to explain things to other people, then, we need to take this into account, to try and put ourselves in their place, to use common language that everyone can relate to such as metaphors (you might want to prepare these in advance since it’s pretty hard to come up with great metaphors at the moment).
This is a particularly important trait for those who wish to become great examples of leadership, for you need to be able to build common ground with people from the most diverse backgrounds, you need to be able to share, project, and build a vision collectively.
CEO, Mavens and Moguls
In business and in life, we often have to explain things to educate or inform others. It can be a challenge and require patience sometimes depending on the audience and their prior level or knowledge or interest level.
Think about it from their perspective and why they care about the topic
Focus on what is in it for them and how they benefit not the features which can be boring until they are interested.
I am a big fan of storytelling as a way to get information across. In the early days of mankind, stories were a great way to communicate around the campfire, they are critical to the Bible and they are still effective today.
People do not remember facts and figures but if you tell them a story that touches them emotionally you get their attention and they want to hear more.
People need to be educated, informed and/or entertained so figure out how best to tell your story in a way that makes them pay attention and breaks through the noise Stories create fans who will help you sell!
My best tip is to stop selling and start sharing. If you share what you know — your passion, your war stories, the good, bad and ugly — the content will flow and pour out of you.
The stories will be interesting and the lessons will be real, people will remember you and come back for more. It always works well for me.
Using analogies can also be a better way to make information relevant, pique their curiosity and get their attention. Ask questions to gauge their interest and understanding so it is an ongoing conversation, not a lecture.
Speaker | Educator | Author
I remember learning from a pastor very early in my career that “informed people are happy people” and that has stuck with me for many years.
Later in life, it dawned on me that he basically meant when others can comprehend what is explained to them, you can earn credibility as a reliable source.
Additionally, there will be fewer worries and in some cases less follow up questions because the explanation of the information was explicitly thorough and precise.
A few tips to help others achieve this milestone of how to be better at explaining things:
- Be sure to answer the six elements of a good news story – Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? (this alleviates curiosity before it transpires).
- Build on the audiences prior knowledge by making culturally relevant connections. This step requires gathering research about your recipients such as demographics, psychographics, or prior personal/educational/business relationships along with the use of similes and metaphors.
- Use visuals such as pictures, graphs, videos, etc to engage the various learning styles. This puts the idea into perspective for the audience to better help them comprehend the message being delivered and also to check for understanding.
This three-step process is like telling an awesome children’s book story with a beginning (hook the audience), middle (climax/problem/turning point of the story that connects with the audience), and an end (the icing on the cake, solution, resolution, closure for the audience).
This methodology will definitely help those who are struggling at explaining things such as educators, administrators, business professionals, etc.
It basically boils down to being prepared, incorporating engaging differentiated pedagogy, and encouraging questions to be asked for clarity.
Researcher | National Director of Quality and Research, PT Solutions Physical Therapy
To better explain, we first need to understand what needs explaining
This requires more than a single question. When working with a patient, I utilize a technique called Motivational Interviewing (MI). MI is more commonly employed by psychologists, but it is equally useful to anyone attempting to educate.
The premise of motivational interviewing is to help an individual articulate why they should choose a specific action. Often, MI is used in the area of behavior change, such as stopping smoking or starting an exercise program.
MI uses various strategies to assess readiness for change, reduce sustain talk (it is too expensive to eat healthily), and to increase change talk (I guess I would have more energy if I exercised more). Integrated throughout MI is explaining, or educating, however, it takes a distant second to listen.
Consider the thoughts and feelings of the listener
I believe most people that struggle with explaining something believe they have the solution to the best strategy before completing the necessary homework. Additionally, they often explain in a manner they prefer to explain to, rather than considering the thoughts and feelings of the other.
When I start working with a new patient, I may know all the best strategies for the patient to start implementing in their lives, provided the patient is ready to immediately adopt potentially drastic changes. What I am not immediately aware of are their beliefs and values. I am also not aware of the information previously provided and accepted as truths.
Our current baseline understanding and cognitive biases are hard to buck. If in trying to explain a concept to someone, even if the concept is rigorously supported by science and a near fact, punching them in the face with facts will often fall short.
Confirmation bias – the inherent desire to support our current beliefs and ignore anything that refutes them – will often bat away even the most well-crafted explanations. The same goes for a host of other biases, including but not limited to the sunk-cost fallacy, halo effect, theory-induced blindness, and the availability heuristic.
If we want to explain something well and have the information stick, we need to understand where an individual is coming from.
We need to know the previous information they have received, and above all, we need to know whether they want the information explained or not.
This is both the starting point and the finish line. If someone does not wish to have something explain, no fancy argument crafting will improve the effectiveness of the explanation.
Instead, start with determining what the person’s goals are. Why do you want to give them the information and how will it help them? Are they seeking confirmation for their current beliefs or are genuinely interested in what you have to say.
If you get to the stage where they want the explanation, the hard work is over. Now, you need to keep the message centered on their goals, not your personal agenda. Yes, there are strategies and skills to more effectively convey the message.
For example, less is more. Like with writing, be succinct. But before you can get to the message, you must determine whether the explanation has been solicited in the first place.
Marketing Manager, Creation BC
As a marketer, the ability to communicate meaningfully with others is an integral part of healthy, positive relationships which are not limited to our personal relationships either. Sometimes to make your perspective known you will need to explain things to a boss, co-workers, customers, or even total strangers.
This may be a challenging thing if they aren’t as comfortable with a topic as you are or if you aren’t great voicing your feelings to someone plainly. Fortunately, there are ways to describe it easier, so that everyone will comprehend it.
What you can do is to prepare what you have to say ahead of time
There are people out there who can think extremely fast and they can find their thoughts easily no matter what kind of scenario they find themselves in.
We are not all that fortunate. For many of us, being placed on the spot will inevitably lead to discomfort or trigger unwanted tension, which at the moment detracts from our ability to focus and interact. It’s quick to get upset or irritated if we can’t find the terms we need to be sharing.
Take a few notes
One way you can work around this issue is to plan ahead of time, remember what you intend to discuss, and maybe take a few notes so you don’t miss what you’ve got to convey right now.
You don’t require a completely crafted speech. For your primary message and supporting points, a collection of bullet points will help you stimulate your mind anytime you need to.
You will also want to spend some time in a mirror talking about yourself so you can express your thoughts, see your body language, and practice until you walk in front of the crowd.
This is a popular and conventional method of helping create confidence with what you’re doing, and then you don’t have to care about how people view you – you’ve already seen what you’re projecting.
When you talk, body language can interact softly alongside you.
Senior Content Manager, The Speaking Polymath
Explaining things is an art. Given below are some ways to get better at it.
Portray the right body language
Effective communication sets in the foundation for a good explanation. In order to communicate effectively it is important to support your verbal messages with the appropriate body language.
This is because appropriate body language promotes a better understanding of your words. So, you can better explain things by portraying the right body language.
Step in the shoes of the receiver
The art of explaining things well, involves stepping in the shoes of your audience. When you do so, you get an idea of their emotional and mental state. It is in the light of this idea that you can explain things, keeping in mind the state of your audience.
Further, as you do so, your explanation gradually becomes better. Thus, it is important to step in the shoes of your audience before beginning with the process of explaining things.
Keep it as simple as possible
In order to explain well it is important to keep things as simple as possible. For this, you should try using simple words and sentences.
Further, you should first collect ideas in your mind, structure them in the easiest way possible, and only then proceed towards explaining things to your audience.
Use the questioning technique
The questioning technique can work wonders in making your explanation better. This is because by asking appropriate questions, you can prompt your audience to think in the direction you wish them to. As you succeed in doing so, your audience will eventually understand your explanation well.
For instance, if you wish to explain your situation to your audience, try asking them what they would do if they had been in the same situation.
Try giving examples from real life
In order to explain well, it is important that you support your statements with proper examples from real life.
By doing so, you don’t merely offer your audience with points of explanation, but also add real-life validations to them. Thus, you can explain things better by adding suitable examples from real life.
Do not skirt around the topic
When you skirt around the topic, your audience’s focus gets drifted from the central issue. As a result, your audience gets confused and you cannot explain things properly. Thus, while explaining things you should try not to skirt around the topic.
Rather, you should simply throw light on the topic and directly begin with the explanation of the main points.
Keep your explanation short
In order to explain effectively, it is important to keep your explanation short. Although, you can offer lengthy explanations at times, try to keep them as short as possible.
This is because lengthy explanations can distract the audience’s attention and also confuse them. Thus, it is important to keep your explanation short.
Co-Founder, Modern Gentlemen
Start with the “hows” before the “whys”
What I’ve noticed as an incredibly inefficient way to explain things is to describe the features, rather than benefits, the “hows” before “whys.” My experience is that the explanation is the most effective when it follows this flow:
- Introduce your explanation with a familiar concept that you can compare the new idea with.
- Continue with the benefits of the idea – the “why” it is important.
- Include analogies if it makes it easier to understand the concept.
- Only then explain the features, the particular elements of your idea.
In short, start from the core by linking the idea to existing experience or phenomenon, then move on to explain the specifics, never the other way around.
Assess the listener’s knowledge and ability to understand before starting with the explanation
From the psychological viewpoint, it’s essential to assess the listener’s knowledge and ability to understand before starting with the explanation.
I find it works better if you overestimate, rather than underestimate the listener. It’s better to start with more expectations than to explain things to someone as if they were first-graders.
You can quickly go back a few steps and simplify or find better analogies if you overestimated. Still, I find that it seems very demeaning when you use super-simple analogies or explanations. It may make your listener closed for understanding your further explanation.
Founder and CEO, Lamourie Public Relations
In public and media relations, I work with clients across industries that are completely different from each other, and a big part of what I do is help them with their messaging, whether it be social media strategies, web copy, newsletters, or marketing pieces.
As a result, I frequently find myself in the position of advising people on how to most effectively communicate their ideas, how to explain their big ideas or new concepts whether in entertainment, advocacy or business.
Evaluate your audience or the person you are speaking to
The first thing to consider is perhaps the most important – really evaluate your audience or the person you are speaking to. Really consider who they are, what they already understand, and what you want them to know or understand.
Choose your words carefully to match your audience
Usually, the most direct wording is the most effective to ensure that your message is truly understood. Too often professionals or those who know a lot about a particular thing throw in industry-specific words or another language that does more to confuse the average listener than to enlighten them.
It’s important to think more about your listener and how they might hear the message than just thinking about what you want to say – and that has never been more important than it is today.
Individuals and brands can do themselves great damage with a carelessly worded social media post or offhand comment so ensure that your words communicate your intended messaging – and that is as important when speaking to a neighbor or business associate as it is when crafting a press release.
Co-Founder, ESL Authority
Make it relatable
We’ve found that one of the biggest reasons a person doesn’t understand something is because it’s so abstract and outside of their daily ‘experiences’.
To combat this, we often use analogies to take a concept and make it more relatable to a person – not only does this immediately introduce an element that they are familiar with, but it also forms a ‘bridge’ that they can use to bind a more complex component with a simpler one.
If you can take a hard-to-understand topic and make it more relatable through an analogy or example, you’re halfway there to helping someone understand it. Most of the time, all we need is a ‘hook’ that helps us relate a piece of information to something we already know!