How To Explain so People “Get It” Reverse the order you explain, and inspire your audience to take action

Have you ever tried to explain an object, a concept, or an idea to someone, and they just didn’t “get it”? Or has someone tried to explain something to you, and you left feeling even more confused afterward? 

The reason why most explanations fail is that we try to explain through definitions. But we humans don’t understand things by what they “are”. 

We actually understand things by how they can help or hurt us


Example 1: What is a knife?
We think of a knife as: 

  • something you can use to cut things 
  • something you can hurt yourself on if you are not careful 

We don’t think of a knife as:
“A sharpened piece of metal with a handhold.” 

 

Example 2: What is Facebook?
We think of Facebook as: 

  • something you can use to connect with your friends or find entertaining content
  • something that will waste your time by sucking you into a vortex of mindless scrolling

We don’t think of Facebook as:
“A company providing a computer application that interfaces with a network of user profiles.” 

 

The advantages of help-hurt explanations

There are three reasons why explaining how a concept can benefit or harm your audience is much better than explaining through definitions: 

  1. You gain your audience’s interest
    When you start with how the concept could help or hurt your audience, they instantly get why it’s worth listening to you to learn more. Definitions give no reason why anyone should care.
  2. Anyone can understand you
    With definitions, you simply explain the concept by using other words. But your recipient may not be familiar with these words, or they may have a different interpretation of them than you. Help-hurt explanations require no complex words.
  3. Your audience understands how to act
    If I explain that naproxen sodium is something you can take to relieve headaches – and that more than 1000mg/day can cause dizziness and nausea – you instantly know how to act. Even though you still don’t know what naproxen sodium actually is.

 

How to explain: WHY => HOW => WHAT

The help-hurt piece, however, is not enough. There are two other pieces your explanation needs for your audience to “get it”. 

Imagine three circles with the same center point.

  • The outer circle is WHAT the concept is (definitions) 
  • The middle circle is HOW the concept works
  • The inner circle is WHY the concept matters (how it can help or hurt your audience)

Your explanation needs all three of these pieces for your audience to fully understand the concept. But the pieces must be introduced in the right order

Most people explain things by going from the outside in. And it’s the completely wrong approach. 

Great communicators explain from the inside out. They start with WHY the concept matters (how it can help or hurt you), then explain HOW it works, and only define WHAT the concept is at the end. 

For example, this is how I might explain what Facebook is by starting with WHY: 

 

What is Facebook? (WHY => WHAT)

    • WHY: Facebook is something you can use to connect with your friends or find entertaining content. 
    • HOW: The way it works is that you create a profile on their online platform. Then you can message, play games, or share content with your friends that also have a Facebook profile through your phone or your computer. 
    • WHAT: Facebook is a social media and social networking service. It has almost 3 billion users and is owned by the company Meta Platforms.

 

Now, contrast that to if I were to use the exact same words, but just reverse the order of information:

 

What is Facebook? (WHAT => WHY)

  • WHAT: Facebook is a social media and social networking service. It has almost 3 billion users and is owned by the company Meta Platforms.
  • HOW: The way it works is that you create a profile on their online platform. Then you can message, play games, or share content with your friends that also have a Facebook profile through your phone or your computer. 
  • WHY: Facebook is something you can use to connect with your friends or find entertaining content. 

 

It’s a completely different message. When we start with WHAT, our audience has no reason to care. And our technical definitions are more likely to confuse than enlighten them. 

But when we start with WHY – how the concept can help or hurt them – your audience gets why they should listen to you. They get how the concept works. And they get how they can use it in the real world. 

 

If you want to explain so people “get it”, then start with WHY the concept can help or hurt your audience. 

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