You know that frustrating feeling when you’re trying to get the point across, but you can’t figure out how to make someone understand? You need some science-backed hacks, tips, and tricks to ease the confusion.
Fortunately, the art of explanation benefits both the teacher and the learner. Research shows that explaining enhances learning by helping you put complex ideas in your own words. At the same time, you make it easier for someone else to grasp new information.
If you have trouble communicating your thoughts, ideas, or knowledge, use this step-by-step guide to explain things better.
16 Easy Steps to Explain Things Better
Great communicators are master explainers. They can take something like quantum physics or philosophy and break it into easily understandable snippets. Whether you’re giving a speech, leading a meeting, or explaining your passion to your friends, these 16 tips can help you send a well-received message:
Start with why they should care
Every great explanation needs an audience genuinely interested in what you have to say.
Use an interesting one-liner to capture someone’s attention and promise them something. Promises explain the psychology of why certain ideas are appealing. Look at the most viral TED Talks. You can see that they start with a promising title and intriguing headliner that convinces you to listen:
- Do Schools Kill Creativity? by Sir Ken Robinson
- Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are by Amy Cuddy
- How Great Leaders Inspire Action by Simon Sinek
- The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown
These captivating titles draw you in to listen. Then, the opening lines pique your interest to keep watching. Even if you’re having a regular conversation, you can use these techniques to make someone excited to learn from your ideas. Ensure your opening, subject, or the first question tells people why they should care.
For example, don’t start an email with the subject “Follow-up.” It’s boring and doesn’t help us get excited. Instead, try:
- As promised, here’s the amazing resource I promised you
- An introduction to help you with your new business
- A great book I think you will love
Action Step: Before you dive into an explanation, come up with an attention-grabbing sentence or question that will make someone care about what you have to say. In this video, behavior researcher Vanessa Van Edwards gives more practical advice on How to Get People to Listen to You and Your Ideas:
Invest time in your own research
Explaining abstract or complex concepts can be challenging:
- First, you have to grasp the idea yourself fully.
- Then, you must translate what you know into simple terms.
- Lastly, you have to help someone else fit the information into an existing paradigm that makes sense in their mind.
Without the first step, you will ultimately fail at explaining anything. The explanation begins with true understanding in your mind. If you haven’t learned the concept, you could risk coming off as ignorant, arrogant, or a know-it-all. Trying to teach someone something you don’t know can be a huge waste of time for both parties.
Instead, start an explanation with the internal question,
“Do I know enough about this to explain it to somebody else?”
If you’re not ready to explain, you can always research more and get back to the conversation later. Being honest about your level of knowledge on a topic is far better than pretending to know something you don’t. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” or, “let me get back to you on that.”
Here are 15 Effective Ways You Can Learn How to Learn, including:
- Using the Memory Palace technique to tie new concepts to mental images of your surroundings
- Hand-write your notes instead of typing
- Use strategic breaks to help your brain reset in between learning blocks
Action Step: Before you start explaining anything, recite what you know in your head or write it down on paper. Instead of regurgitating information, try putting it in your own words. For example, if you want to teach managers how to promote intrinsic motivation for employees, consider the differences between these explanations:
- A dull dictionary definition says, “Intrinsic motivation is the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence.” While this may sound intellectual, it’s pretty technical and difficult to apply in real life.
- A better explanation may include a personally relevant analogy like, “Intrinsic motivation is like an internal drive, but extrinsic motivation is about getting external rewards. In our office, intrinsic motivation is about helping employees feel excited about their jobs because they want to achieve personal goals rather than only completing a task for an external reward or fear of punishment.”
Before you explain, create a mental image
In one study of surgical students, teachers who put a mental image in the student’s head were more effective at teaching them the surgical technique. When you need to explain something, visualize an image in your head and use your words to create that mental image in your listener’s mind.
For example, in this TED Talk called What are you willing to give up to change the way we work?, Martin Danoesastro asks the audience to visualize a flock of birds flying together to explain how people can make autonomous decisions while still “flying” in sync with the group. This powerful imagery emphasizes his point that organizations should give teams more autonomy while having the same goals.
Put the most relevant information at the beginning and end
The serial-position phenomenon describes why people are more likely to remember the first and last things you say. Whether teaching your coworkers how to shut down a store at night or explaining to your grandma how to use a smartphone, you should emphasize the most memorable points at the beginning and again at the end.
This may sound like this:
- Beginning: The most important thing to remember about closing the store is to hit this master light switch and check these two locks.
- End: Before you leave at night, always remember the two “L’s”—lights and locks.
- Beginning: Always hold the top right button to turn the phone on or off and swipe up to return to the home page.
- End: Remember, click here to turn the phone on and off (demonstrate) and swipe up to exit an app.
Assess how much they already understand
You know that awkward moment when someone starts talking to you like you’re a five-year-old as they explain something basic? Or when a presenter dives into crazy depth about some technical neuroscience doctor jargon that makes no sense to you?
Skilled explainers are acutely aware of what their audience knows and doesn’t know. That way, they don’t waste time or come across the wrong way.
For example, if you are explaining to your colleagues how to use new software, you need to know their level of experience with the software. Have they used similar software before that you can compare to? Or are they beginners on a new operating system who need step-by-step instructions?
Don’t make assumptions about how much someone knows about a topic. Before explaining, be sure you know how much they already know.
When you don’t consider a student’s pre-existing knowledge base, you create more opportunities for misunderstanding. Your explanation could be too elementary if you don’t know how much the learner already knows. The results may not be ideal:
- The explainer accidentally comes across as condescending by covering rudimentary, basic knowledge.
- You can inadvertently insult people by making them feel dumb.
- The learner gets annoyed or bored because they already understand the concept.
But if you assume your audience already knows the basics of a topic, things can also go wrong:
- The explainer goes way too in-depth.
- The information goes over their head because they don’t understand the basics.
- The learner feels afraid to speak up because they don’t want to look stupid.
- The core message is lost.
Instead, ask if you are unsure. Search for clues about their knowledge level by asking:
- “Have you heard of this before?”
- “Raise your hand if you have done this before.” (If explaining in a group setting)
- “On a scale of 1-10, what would you rate your level of knowledge on this topic?”
Fun Tip: Check out this fun video on how a neuroscientist explains the concept of “memory” in five varying levels of difficulty:
Break it up into small bites
You don’t eat a whole meal in one bite, so why bombard somebody with heaps of information all at once? You could call this explanation indigestion because it doesn’t sit well. According to neuroscientists, big gulps of information can lead to cognitive overload that stresses the brain. That’s probably not your goal for an explanation!
Instead, present big ideas in bite-size pieces. You can use the following:
- Three-part lists: There is something magical about the number three. People tend to remember things in threes because it distills a larger message into a recognizable pattern. You can sum up the ancient practice of yoga with the three words “mind, body, and spirit.” Similarly, you can emphasize the importance of where to purchase real estate with the classic “location, location, location.”
Step-by-step: Use this technique to give a chronological explanation, like how to change a car tire. If something seems daunting or intimidating, people feel more inclined to listen once they realize it’s only “six simple steps”:
- Step 1: Park car on level ground
- Step 2: Loosen the tire’s lug nuts with a tire iron
- Step 3: Place the car jack under the car frame and jack it up
- Step 4: Remove the lug nuts and take off the tire
- Step 5: Put the spare tire on and lightly screw on the nuts
- Step 6: Lower the jack and tighten the nuts in a star pattern, then remove the jack
That doesn’t seem so bad! It’s digestible and easy to remember. But remember—we aren’t mechanics (we’re people researchers!); this is just an example!
- Role-playing: To explain an abstract (non-tangible) concept like people skills, you may want to use a role-playing persona to act something out in real life. If someone doesn’t understand what gaslighting is, you can pretend to have a conversation where they are the victim, and you are a gaslighter to show them an example of the manipulation tactics in action.
Bonus points if you add a non-verbal cue to each of these “bites!” For example, hold up a finger to count through each step or part of a list.
Studies show that repetition increases memory and learning recollection. But this doesn’t mean repeating the same thing over and over. You can repeat an unfamiliar concept several times by explaining it differently as you teach somebody.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an exact number of repetitions that will magically make people remember your points. But three or seven are great places to start. But as German researcher Herman Ebbinghaus discovered over a century ago, the timing of repetitions is also key. You want to evenly space the time intervals to make a memory “stick.”
Action Step: If you need to explain a concept to someone who needs your help, use a 5-minute spaced repetition schedule to improve their memory retention. For example, if a client is struggling to use a new software product, you might:
- Start by addressing the key problem they are repeating by pulling up a page and demonstrating the proper sequence of actions.
- Take a few minutes to explain smaller steps to make their process easier.
- After 5 minutes, return to the original issue and repeat the demonstration more quickly with a slightly different language.
- In the end, go over the entire process and have them perform the task while you guide and check that it is working.
Keep it simple
The best explanations are usually simple and straight to the point. Big words and complex sentences may make you feel more intellectual, but they can distract from your main fact.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”—Albert Einstein
You can simplify your explanation by:
- Eliminating unnecessary or distracting phrases
- Communicating big-picture ideas
- Ditching the nitty-gritty details
- Avoiding technical jargon (talk in plain language)
- Giving concrete examples
- Making it relevant to your audience
- Speaking in short sentences
For example, check out this reveal video of the first iPad in 2010:
Notice how Steve Jobs, when he introduces the iPad, simply says, “This is what it looks like.” He doesn’t dive straight away into the technical specs. He doesn’t explain what it is. He just says it’s thin and looks like this. Simple, right?
Don’t pretend to be an expert
Socially skilled people don’t pretend to be experts in everything. Instead, they only talk deeply about topics that they are knowledgeable about. There is no shame in admitting that you are still a student. After all, being a lifelong learner is a crucial indicator of a growth mindset.
Even if you aren’t an expert, you can still explain concepts to others. Just be sure you don’t fake your expertise.
For example, say you love reading books about natural healing and making tea blends, but you don’t have any official degrees or formal education in medicine. You can still teach your friend what you know about herbalism—but maybe communicate that you are not a master in the subject.
You can say:
- “Honestly, I’m not an expert in this. It’s just my side hobby.”
- “I just recently started learning about this, and I am excited to learn more.”
- “Most of what I know is from my trial and error, so just keep in mind that I’m not a professional.”
Pro Tip: If you have put in your 10,000 hours and are an expert on a topic, props to you! You are ready to explain your area of expertise to others. You can subtly mention your years of experience or titles to back up your knowledge, but try not to brag or boast. Here’s How to Promote Yourself and Your Ideas Without Being Obnoxious.
Provide reputable resources and evidence
Sociologists have found that people who reference statistical evidence tend to be more convincing in their message. Evidence increases your:
- Perceived intelligence
Think about it: If you read an article about How to Be More Likable Using These 5 Science-Backed Strategies, but the author couldn’t point to any psychological research or studies, you might doubt their authority, right? This article (and every guide on the Science of People) is backed by real research studies and data linked throughout the text.
Thankfully, you don’t have to show up to a conversation with a bibliography!
Instead, keep the names of influential people, books, or websites in your back pocket. If someone is genuinely interested in the subject, they might want to know where you got the information and how they can learn more.
Action Step: Think about a topic you love talking about. For example, you may spend much of your free time learning about personal development. If you want to explain to your mom what personal growth is, it may help to reference leading experts in the field like Tony Robbins or Jim Rohn. You could also bring up relevant books like Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill or How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. These resources show that you’ve done your homework while giving her a jumping-off point to start her growth journey.
Create your own mnemonic
According to brain expert Jim Kwik, mnemonic devices are the easiest memory hacks for storing and retrieving information in your brain. Whether explaining a general principle or diving in-depth, you can create mini-hacks that help people remember your key points.
- If you’re teaching someone the rules of spelling, you may use the rhyme “I before E except after C.”
- When helping your work team set better goals, reference the SMART acronym: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Based.”
- When explaining how to turn screws or lightbulbs, you can use the classic “right tighty, lefty loosey.”
Mnemonics help people anchor ideas using a memorable framework.
Use these secret explanation tactics
If you want people to listen to (and remember) your ideas, explain things with creative speech techniques. According to Harvard professor John Antonakis, the most charismatic speakers and teachers use “charismatic leadership tactics” (CLTs) to make people more inclined to listen to them and retain information.
The main CLTs include:
- Metaphors: The use of a metaphor is like a mini-story that ties a new concept with something that someone already understands. This figure of speech makes two unrelated things seem similar. For example, “Learning to read micro-expressions can make life suddenly seem like High Definition TV. You suddenly notice details you didn’t see before.”
- Similes: When you compare two things using the word “like,” it is considered a simile. For example, Vanessa Van Edwards always says, “People skills are like the social lubricant of life.”
- Analogies: An analogy compares two topics in a way that is easy to reference throughout your explanation. For example, “A glove is to the hand as a sock is to the foot.” Use the structure of “(first word) is to (second word) as (first comparison) is to (second comparison).”
These hacks are handy for public speaking. Here are 15 Science-Based Public Speaking Tips To Be A Master Speaker.
There is a lot of power behind “once upon a time.” Research shows that stories activate our brains to make us feel like we are inside the story. This helps:
- Capture your listener’s attention
- Make your points more memorable
Bonus points if you can link parts of your stories to metaphors and facts or figures that make your explanation more detailed.
For example, if you want to explain the science of flower pollination to a child, you can make it a playful and imaginative story like this one:
Pollination is what happens when an insect helps a plant make fruit. Imagine there is a lonely apple tree. She produces lots of flowers, but she needs help turning her flowers into apple fruits. So inside her flowers, she puts sugary sweet treats called nectar. The smell of her flowers and nectar is extra strong to lure in pollinator insects like bees. When a hungry bee smells the blossoms, he goes to land inside one of the apple’s flower petals. He buzzes around, looking for the nectar treats. As he searches for the nectar, he rubs his fuzzy body against little sticks inside the flower that leave yellow globs on his fur. This is called pollen. Then, the bee goes and finds an apple tree at the neighbor’s house and does the same thing inside its flowers. The pollen spreads from his fur into the original flower when it returns to the original tree for more nectar treats. The apple tree is delighted because she can finally grow fruit!
In this TED Talk, Leland Melvin uses animated body language and humorous storytelling to explain the realities of a NASA astronaut:
Whether explaining to a kid or an adult, storytelling can make technical or scientific topics sound more engaging and easier to remember. Let your creativity run wild with this guide on How to Unleash Your Inner Creative Genius.
Use visual cues
The human mind processes images 60,000 times faster than words, which is why a visual means of explanation is just as important as verbalization.
For example, use a Venn diagram to explain the similarities and differences between
You can also create your own diagrams like the one Vanessa Van Edwards used in her book Cues.
Pro Tip: Do you have a whiteboard or piece of paper you can use to explain your concepts? Draw out ideas! Do you have slides that can accompany your ideas? Get visual!
Notice the body language cues of confusion versus understanding
Explanations are still conversations. To ensure you are making sense, you can read the non-verbal signals of the person you are communicating with. Sometimes people don’t want to admit that they are confused or having trouble understanding openly. Instead, they often just nod their head as you talk because they don’t want to seem rude or, worse—feel unintelligent.
Look for these subtle cues to understand your listener and consider whether you need to change your approach:
|Confusion Body Language||Comprehension Body Language|
|Wrinkled or furrowed brows||Neutral, wrinkle-free forehead|
|Slouching down||Leaning forward|
|Wandering eyes||Direct eye contact|
|One eyebrow raised higher than the other||Eyebrows|
|Shoulder shrug||Straight, relaxed spine|
|Scrunched up nose||Neutral nose|
|Lips pursed together||Mouth relaxed|
Ask questions during a conversation
Checking for understanding is an integral part of the explanation process. Otherwise, you’re just talking to a confused wall! You should periodically ask your listener or student questions to ensure that they’re on the same page with you. Just make sure you don’t sound condescending.
Ask for specific feedback, like:
- “Does that make sense?”
- “Does it seem like something is missing?”
- “Do you have any questions?”
- “Do you remember X point?”
Explanation is a critical skill for parents, bosses, and anyone who loves to learn. If you can explain yourself using simple, direct language, you could transform your personal relationships. Regardless of what you’re explaining, remember to:
- Make it meaningful to them: If you can’t convince your audience why they should care, your explanation could be a total waste of time. Use an intriguing sparkline that states the promise or benefit of your explanation in one sentence.
- Create a visual image: People think in images, not words. If you can ground your explanation in a concrete visualization, people are more likely to remember what you have to say.
- Break it up into small bits: Big concepts are intimidating, but smaller chunks are easy to understand. Use three-part lists, step-by-step guides, or role-playing to simplify your explanation.
- Pay attention to their nonverbal and verbal feedback: If someone shows signs of confusion (like a furrowed brow or averted gaze), it might be time to go back and ask some questions like, “are you still with me?”
Ultimately, your explanations determine if people want to listen to your ideas. A clearly communicated message is the secret sauce to great teaching, successful marketing, and captivating speeches.
Want to be more convincing? Here are 8 Techniques You Can Learn To Become More Persuasive.