Whether you’re a marketer, a developer, a salesperson or an astronaut, chances are you have to explain things from time to time. And it doesn’t matter if you’re writing an email to a vendor or composing a scientific paper on space rocks-explaining things is hard. You can spend hours lovingly crafting a PowerPoint deck, searching for the right font, timing the transitions just so…only to receive a bunch of drooly stares in return.

Office people working

Explaining is a big part of what we do at Jellyvision. We help explain healthcare benefits, software systems, crazy complicated financial stuff, and target the difference between this laptop and that laptop. So now, we’re going to explain how to explain. So meta!

The first important part of a good explanation? Know your audience. Here’s a few tips. Make sure you check these off before you launch into, “So, space rocks…”

1. Who the Heck Are You Talking To?

First things first: who’s getting explained at? Who you’re talking to should make a big difference in how you explain.

Say you want to explain a new software product. You’d explain it differently to someone who’s going to help develop it than you would to a customer, and you’d explain it differently to a customer than to your mom, right?

In that example, it’s pretty obvious that you shouldn’t give the Mom explanation to the developer. (Developer, this is a doohickey for your phone. No, it doesn’t remind you to call your mother more often.) Approach all explanations like that. One size does not fit all.

Before you start explaining, think carefully about who you’re talking to. Are you explaining something to a client or a coworker? The sales team or the lawyers? What exactly does this person need to get out of the explanation? Which brings me to the next tip…

2. Figure out What’s in It for Them

You know why you’re explaining, but does the person on the other end of the explanation know why they should listen? Instead of focusing on getting your point across, figure out why your explanation should matter to the other person.

Let’s go back to those space rocks, and say I’m the astronaut trying to explain them. (I’m an astronaut! Childhood dream come true!)

Melanie the Astronaut

I’m interested in space rocks because I’m an astronaut. C’mon, I live and breathe space rocks. But my neighbor Dave is not so inherently interested in space rocks. When I hang over the fence and start rappin’ rocks, he’s going to nod politely and try to change the subject. But if I know that Dave is an animal lover, I can start by talking about how all life on Earth, including fluffy animals, may have come from space rocks, and bam! Dave’s on Team Rock.

Make your explanation matter to your audience. If you relate everything back to their interests and needs, your audience will be more interested in your explanation, and that makes it easier for them to learn.

3. Acknowledge Your Knowledge

Dave and I are deep into space rocks now. I’m excited to have someone to talk about my rocks with, so I start getting into meteoroids and meteorites and chondrules and bolides and all of a sudden, Dave’s face is glazed over. Dave! Dave! I thought we were rock buddies now!

It’s incredibly difficult for an expert to explain a topic to a non-expert. I can’t remember what it’s like not to know everything about space rocks, so I’m throwing out technical terms and details that don’t mean anything to Dave. This phenomenon is called the Curse of Knowledge-basically, experts have a hard time thinking about a subject from the perspective of a non-expert.

To beat the curse, you have to consciously put yourself in the mindset of a non-expert. Does a non-astronaut know what the heck a bolide is?

A bolide?

A bolide, maybe?

Do most people know where the door seals are on their refrigerator? Do people appreciate that crucial difference between your product and your competitor’s?

Research can help here. Go out and talk to some actual non-experts, and find out what they know and what they’ve never heard of.

You’re on your way to a great explanation your audience is going to care about. Now you just have to explain it. Damn. Don’t worry, I’ll have more tips in How to Explain, Part 2: Simplify.