Explain It Simply…Please

January 25, 2010

Why?

When people are asking you to explain things to them, they are either testing you because they already know or they need to be taught.  If it’s the first case, they probably aren’t really listening to what you’re saying, but are just waiting for you to say something wrong so they can go on the attack.  If it’s the second case however, they legitimately want to learn from you.

Now I’m going to work on the assumption that you as the teacher and they as the teachee (Did I just create a new word?) are probably only going to want to run through things once if possible.  I know this personally bugs me.

So I suppose then it’s important to understand one of the most important things when teaching someone something new.

Obviously this guy knew what he was doing.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Albert Einstein

So ask yourself, do you really understand what is going on?  Before launching into an educating session, perhaps it’s best to re-evalute what you actually know and understand about the topic.  It will probably save you hopelessly confusing your poor victim.  But it’s tricky.  It’s what one blogger refers to as the ‘Curse of Knowledge‘.

So know your topic from the ground up, then teach in that direction.

I’m not talking about knowing how to tie knots or make a raft (though I’m sure somehow these skills could come in handy to the young professional).  No, I’m talking about that old motto “Be Prepared“.

I wanted to follow up on a great comment by Lance on a post of mine.  He refers to a few techniques he’s developed to deal with both time poor and less guiding managers.

  1. Regular meetings with preparation.
  2. Multiple solutions to any problems.

Which leads me to the reason behind the title and a story from personal experience.  A long lasting problem that no one was aware of surfaced at work.  I was tasked with finding and implementing the solution.  The ultimate results though weren’t going to be immediately visible by myself.  Sure enough, a couple of days later I get a phone call.

“Um, Anthony, we’re not to sure about the results.  Can you explain these numbers?”

So I’m pulled into a meeting a fair few floors above my own.  But I had unknowingly followed the above advice.  I had two solutions to the problem.  So in the meeting I was able to accurately explain what had gone wrong and what corrective steps were required.  It worked out so well that the senior manager commented later on that he was impressed with how I had handled the meeting.

I suppose it went alright; I never heard of the issue again.

Teaching those older than you

September 20, 2009

By definition a young professional is probably not going to be as old as our colleagues.  Der. So there will be times in the workplace when we know something these other guys (or gals) don’t.  They’ll need to get taught.  And here the difficulties can arise.

I can find it difficult to teach something to someone who has been doing the basics of my job for years.  10 plus sometimes.  Wow…10 years ago I was running around high school playing barefoot soccer at lunch.

Here is an example.  The other day at work we got a group email inbox set up.  I know, not mind blowing technology but a simple step we’d been missing.  Everyone in the workplace knows how to use email.  I work at an investment bank, so we live on email and spreadsheets.  Anyway, I had to run through the basics of how to use it and the strengths of it.  Then a couple of days later I ask

“So <insert manager name here>, you haven’t been filing away your emails I see.”

“Oh yeh, how do I access it again?”

So obviously I need to work on my teaching skills a little.  But it leads me to my important point.

How to teach without patronising.

  1. Use simple terminology but not dumbed down.  Unneccesary a.c.r.o.n.y.m.s and explaining how to turn on the PC aren’t required.
  2. Use analogies.  My favourite is for explaining hotmail to my mum –  “It’s like a Post Office Box which you can access from any computer in the world.”
  3. Understand that they won’t get it completely the first time.  Who does?

So go to it.  Teach away readers.