How to Explain Anything to Anyone (Commentary)

This a good post with a simple, compact, solid recipe for how to explain ‘anything to anyone’.

In a past life I used to pitch [company] to [investors] and pitching is half explaining, half seduction; so I have a few ideas in the space.

I can’t comment directly on the post and this is my blog, so here is my comment/revision/proposed changes/the way I think of it:

1. Decide what you want the audience to believe
2. Find out what the audience believes
3. Express the first in terms of the second

I like the description above because it decomposes explanation in terms of change of beliefs.

 Decide what you want the audience to believe

If the conversation goes the way you want, what are the beliefs that the audience does not currently hold but that they will come to hold?

 Find out what the audience believes

As in the original post, ‘Ask them’. It’s a sorting problem. You need to have a model of broadly what categories of distance from the target beliefs there are, and to be able to ask questions that disambiguate between those pretty hard.

This is like searching for a word in the dictionary. Open the dictionary at half way, then if it is further open at half-way between now and the end, and keep doing that.

I’ve always asked about people’s background — work or study —, and what they’ve heard about the space. This is usually enough to sort them. If you need more, you can ask about familiarity with specific concepts.

The background quesiton is very non-threathening, and people can feel dumb by having you ask whether they know something and having to say they don’t. If they seem to be saying ‘yes’ but falsely offer them a ‘broad overview’ of the field, either historical or conceptual. If they jump on it, that’s what you need to go for.

 Express the first in terms of the second

A broad explanation isn’t the only thing that works, however.

Once you have a model of what they believe and in what shape they believe it you can refactor the beliefs you want them to have into that shape and express them such.

You can go breadth-first here, explaining the whole area of relevant beliefs in successive detail, at each step taking a step further from what you gave them. Or, you can go depth-first, by iterating on a concept or belief until they nailed that, and then doing it for the next one.

This comes to the preference of the listener, and what level of clarity/detail they’re aiming for or comfortable with.

Notably the second will make it very obvious if the concepts are unclear to yourself, which is often the case, so people shy away from it.

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