5 key tools in the explainer’s arsenal

May 19, 2011

I’m often called on to explain technology in front of various groups. When used together skillfully, here are 5 potent tools to remember are at your disposal.

1. Pictures

It’s often been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Examples of great infographics abound, and there are some who engage in data visualization, infographics design, and visual explanation as a discipline. There are also loads of poor graphics — cluttered and confusing. So a picture is only worth its weight when it helps provide clarity. In other words, don’t throw gratuitous clip art on a Power Point slide or export charts from charting components just because you can. Your imagery should always be designed (or selected) to help make connections in your learners’ minds. Always remember that simplicity is better.

2. Words

Though a picture can be worth a thousand words, there are times that a few words can be worth thousands of pixels. If your goal is concept transference, there are times that visuals only add layers the learner needs to interpret. It is possible to cloud a learner’s mind with diagrams and symbols when a couple of readily understood spoken/written phrases will do. If you find yourself fighting against complicated visuals, consider using a well-conceived analogy, anecdote, or brief story instead.

In the final pre-publication revision to The Ultimate PC Primer, I actually chose to remove an illustration because I decided the concept could be explained in a few words rather than the full page illustration I had prepared. In this case, the large image (which made my page layout complicated to boot) didn’t add that much to the explanation. I relayed the concept instead by briefly citing a common real-world example.

3. Props

When explaining in person, sometimes it helps to borrow a trick from theater: interact with something tangible. A prop is a physical analogy. It can heighten audience interest (when they’re desensitized to many bullet points and slides) and also provide a great connection between the physical world and the concept you’re trying to explain. In the past, I have actually brought the following into various meetings and presentations: a laser level, a golf ball, a deck of cards, juggling knives, and a picture (on paper) of the  Bay Bridge in San Francisco undergoing reconstruction. Remember to pick something your audience can understand — something familiar.  A ring of keys is good whereas the prototype of your new plasma engine is probably not so good.

4. Video (and animation)

If you have even modest production capabilities and a sense of how to keep a synchronized audio-visual presentation simple, video and animation are powerful tools for explaining complex concepts. From the plethora of animated whiteboards (probably inspired by the RSA Animate videos) to the unique hand artistry of Common Craft to the simple animated presentations of Explania, examples of this type of concise video abound. Find what works for your situation, and remember to keep it short.

5. Yourself

Never underestimate the human connection. If you’re providing explanation face to face, remember that you can adapt in ways pre-selected presentation technologies can’t. You can adjust based on your audience’s body language or questions. You can show empathy when your learner is having trouble grasping a concept. Remember, you are the ultimate explainer, not the technology.

4 quick tips for explaining tech to parents (and other non-techies)

May 12, 2011

To celebrate the launch of The Ultimate PC Primer, I wanted to share a few of the teaching strategies I leveraged in crafting the book. If you’re struggling to explain a new technology to a parent, grandparent, or coworker, consider these before your next attempt.

1. Lose yourself.

Forget that you know what you know. Admit that you have The Curse of Knowledge, despite how annoyed you may feel about how “basic” you think the subject matter is. This is extremely difficult, to imagine what it’s like to not understand something that you indeed understand all too well. (That’s partially why it took so long to write the book.) But you have to start here. It will save you frustration. It also will help you empathise, or at least be able to say things that sound empathetic in those key moments when your learner is deciding to tune out or stay with you.

2. Make connections with things known.

Draw comparisons from familiar things. Find something your learner can relate to. This may be hard, based on the cultural or age differences between you and your learner. I admit, it was a stretch for me to write The Ultimate PC Primer because I had to continually learn about how others see the world, based on their experiences and mental reference points. You want to look for common ground in the least-technical space possible. The everyday world is filled with these opportunities. You just have to find them. When I present in front of groups, I try to know the audience as much as possible and leverage examples that I’m fairly confident they can relate to. Speaking of analogies…

3. Find analogies that go the distance.

Analogies and metaphors can be fantastic ways to connect the known with the unknown. You start with something ordinary, of which the learner has no fear. You use it as a bridge to the “scary technology concept.” It takes away the fear and can help create a solid mental model of the technology or concept you’re trying to explain. However, all analogies are not created equal. They break down at some point. (That’s why they’re only analogies.) But a well-conceived analogy can go the distance, being relevant and helpful in multiple situations and scenarios. The best analogies contribute to the learner’s mental model, rather than fracturing it. So search for the golden analogies. It’s hard work, but it keeps you from having to say “forget I said that” or “well, in this case, this technology is actually different from what I said before.” You want to make a lasagna, where all the noodles fit neatly together, not analogy spaghetti.

4. Don’t overload.

When you begin to see the lightbulb go on, it’s easy to try to quickly piggyback on that lightbulb moment — to want to move expediently toward “the end game.” I know getting across the finish line will make your life easier, and you undoubtedly want to make their life easier. But if you want to truly get your learner across the finish line, be prepared to hold yourself back. As a concept is newly formed in the mind of your learner, you don’t want to cause cognitive overload by quickly dumping all kinds of other foreign concepts on top of it in your earnest attempt to “get them up to speed.”  In writing The Ultimate PC Primer, I went through several manuscript revisions trying to make sure I wasn’t crowding too much into each lesson. When I started writing, I worried about having too little in my book. Eventually, I started pulling content out, to keep from overloading the reader with too many new concepts. And that’s why the book ended up being a primer. You have to give people somewhere to start… a foundation. I found I couldn’t explain everything a PC user would need to know in one book, and you can’t build your learner’s house right after pouring the foundation.  Let it solidify, lest you dislodge what you just built. Though tech-savvy people like you and I are conditioned to wait for little in this age, remember Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you want your learner to truly understand something of depth, several cumulative lessons may be needed.

Best wishes as you endeavor to explain technology to your learner.  For some additional ideas on explaining personal computers to new or confused users, pick up a copy of The Ultimate PC Primer on Amazon or through your favorite bookseller.

Finally! A computer book for your mom (or dad)

May 6, 2011

Cover of The Ultimate PC Primer by Ben KobulnickyJust in time for Mother’s Day, The Ultimate PC Primer is a newly released resource for those who have struggled to get their mother, father, or other older relatives and friends to consistently understand personal computers. Using analogies, stories, and illustrations that compare core computing concepts to real-world things, the book is intended to bring both new and existing PC users to a baseline of knowledge and understanding so that family, friends, and tech support can at least have a “same language” dialog. It’s not a miracle fix — no computer book can be —  but it’s a starting point that everyone needs. With its reasonable price, it can easily be purchased along with one of the thick, traditional “how-to” computer reference books.

If you’re one of those people who have struggled to get mom or dad to understand computing, and you’ve found other resources to be too complicated or too technical, give it a try. While it’s largely written for those who are newer to managing their own computing experience — retirees from non-technology-centric fields, senior citizens, etc. —  it would probably also be a great help to those needing to come out of retirement into the workforce again who might never have needed to depend on PC skills before.

It is available via Amazon or the publisher today, and within a month it should be able to be ordered through any major U.S. bookseller.