5 key tools in the explainer’s arsenal

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.

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One Response to 5 key tools in the explainer’s arsenal

  1. Timo Mouton says:

    Really great blog post! I’ll tweet it with our Explania account. Thanks for the Explania.com mention.

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