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

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.


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