I’m sure you’ve experienced it before: you spend more time than needed explaining a concept, problem, or scenario to someone who just doesn’t seem to get it. Despite multiple meetings, text conversations or coffee chats, they still pop back up and say “I don’t get it.” Or worse, they say they do, then do it all wrong.
This phenomenon is apparent in every aspect of life: from teaching people how to cook to high-level trading to learning in the classroom. I’ve met professors who have confessed their concerns about the intelligence of the coming generations, as students seem dumbfounded when they hear their professor speak. It’s even more concerning that, despite the recurring scenario these professors find themselves in, none have ever thought that they could possibly be the problem (and I’m not saying they all are… Just that more than I anticipated seem out of touch with their students).
I’ve seen it in politics and advocacy: impassioned speeches addressing fundamental issues in society met with yawns and “wait, what?” I’ve seen progressives’ blood boil as they fail to connect with those they speak to, and centrists that can’t seem to get people to understand the implications of decisions in the political realm.
What is fascinating to me is how this dynamic is so quickly dismissed or overlooked in every social dynamic, except for one: working with children. It’s only when we have to explain a subject to a young child do we take a step back and rethink our words. It’s the only time I’ve seen people put themselves in the shoes of the listener (figuratively, not literally) and try to explain it in a way they understand.
After a certain age, we expect that people can understand anything we say. We expect the listener is educated, aware, and competent in both. For them to not be, no matter the reason, is their fault, not ours: so we continue to speak how we see fit and expect them to make sense of it, or to continue in their arrogance.
This thought process is one of the most restrictive and limiting beliefs we carry. Failing to address the fundamental challenges of how we communicate is not only what stops your marketing campaign from catching traction: it’s why students struggle in school, it’s why the public can easily become frustrated with politics, and I’d go as far as to argue it’s why so much conflict has occurred in our short existence. Our inability to understand each other is what is holding us back.
But we can do something about it. All it requires is a bit of learning, practice, and intention.
Because if we learn how to communicate with each other, life becomes better. When we know how to communicate, we can structure winning campaigns, we can raise funds for good causes and we can begin to fix problems in society. We can stop needless arguments before they happen, we can help people make better choices, and we can improve our wellbeing.
All we need to do is communicate better. So how do we do that?
Enter the Feynman Technique
Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who researched and taught many complex subjects such as quantum electrodynamics and particle physics, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. While he was well known for his research and scientific contributions, he was also known for his teaching: specifically how great of a professor he was.
Nicknamed “The Great Explainer”, Feynman could take these complicated subjects and break them down into their essentials, using language that resonated with the listener. For example:
Atoms are a complex concept, but Feynman was able to explain it in a way that makes it much easier for us to understand: namely, atoms are small, they always move, they move towards each other if they have some space, and move away from each other if something pushes them together.
The reason Feynman is known for being a stellar teacher is that he often taught through the lens of simpler language & understanding. His “learning technique” follows this process:
- Pick a subject & study it
- Pretend you’re explaining it to someone else (EG: a younger audience, or a kid)
- Identify where you struggle to explain it and review that specific part
- Review & repeat
Simple as that. The reason that “explaining it to a child” is so important is that children don’t have the complex language or foundational education some of us have (or expect others to have) on certain subjects. They have fresh minds without all the meticulous details, so they have to make sense of things without that context. To do so, they need to simplify the subject. Which means we need to simplify to explain it.
And there is the key. Simplifying our language requires two things: that we understand the subject enough to do so, and acknowledging the listener may not have the context we have.
The Feynman Technique is used heavily in teaching & learning: but how does it work in communication?
Make sure you check this video out. It’s still a bit complex, but his ability to explain the similarities and differences between these two subjects sheds a light on how he focuses on fundamentals, and he operates within the context of his audience.
Simplifying Your Language
With Feynman, the goal was to make sure that you understood the subject. This requires frequent study, but also the process of breaking down subjects to their fundamentals and understanding them. It meant taking that subject, and working on it so no matter who you spoke to, you’d be able to explain it. This process is what we need in modern communication. Regardless of what we use to communicate (be it over the phone, text, social media, video, etc.) proper language is paramount. If we use words that people don’t understand, it’s much easier for them to flat out reject the message (and many do).
Frank Luntz elaborates on this more in his book “Words That Work”. A fairly in-depth book with a lot of insight and practical experience that can be summarized in one sentence (something he points out multiple times throughout the book):
It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.
That in of itself is the principle of his work. When it comes to how he communicates and teaches others how to communicate, this lesson is at the center of it all. You have to speak in a way that people understand. This may require a process for those of us immersed in jargon and technicality, especially if we’ve spent years studying a field. Referring back to Feynman, we can use the “formula” we spoke of earlier to set up a process to simplify our language.
- Decide what you’re going to say
- If you find a word that looks fancy, replace it with an easier one
- If you can’t find an easier word, make sure you explain what the fancy word means
- If your explanation uses equally fancy words, start back at step 1
- Send the message
5 steps may seem like a lot to run speeches, Instagram posts, or conversations through. However with a bit of practice, you’ll start to internalize this quickly and find yourself spending less time thinking and more time talking — and in simpler language.
What we’re aiming for here is what Luntz calls “message alignment”: when the messenger (you), the message (what you want to say) and the recipient (the “audience”) are on the same page. When you achieve this, what you say isn’t lost in translation, and connects with the audience much faster, and at a deeper level. By using Feynman’s principles, we’re effectively simplifying what we learn into the language understood by the listener (whoever they are).
If you’d like an example of this in action, check out this video by Kurzgesagt — In A Nutshell. Their channel is phenomenal when it comes to taking extremely complex subjects and breaking them down for the general public.
What you’ll notice is that they don’t shy away from complex terms, but they do translate those terms as best as possible first. Education needs to precede information. You first have to set the context & explain what you’re saying before you continue.
As mentioned at the beginning, the easiest way of learning how to do this is by pretending you’re speaking to children. Inevitably, you’re going to have to both simplify your language and gain a solid understanding of the subject to translate it into simple language.
In the previous section, we talked about the importance of considering the listener. But what if you have a wider audience, each with different levels of understanding? It’s not easy to figure out what each person understands, especially if you’re writing or speaking for hundreds of thousands of people.
The cop-out answer here is to simplify your language, and we’ve already spoken about that. But another thing we can do is help listeners meet us halfway by setting the context of what we’re going to say. In Feynman’s work, he typically explains what he’s trying to teach you before teaching it. You see him do this in the video linked previously in this post: naming the subjects he’s taking you through (mathematics & physics), the fact they are different, and why the difference matters. This is done before and during his process of teaching us what those differences are.
George Lakoff introduces “frames” in his book “Don’t Think of An Elephant!”, which can be defined as the structure of the way we think and understand a subject. It’s a lens in which we “see” ideas, and the development of frames can fast-track understanding. If we don’t set a frame early enough, we risk our message going in through one ear and out through the other. The message can’t survive long in the ecosystem of the listener’s mind.
Frames are a fancy way of explaining context. For us to resonate with the listeners, we need to help create a common context that multiple listeners with different experiences can understand. If you’re writing a speech, creating a presentation, or teaching a class, you need to first ensure the audience has enough context. For example: as a Tour Guide at my alma mater, we learned very quickly that visitors don’t know what the UC is. But they do understand University Centre: the central hub on campus for many general student needs, AKA the UC. Once we explain that, we can use UC pretty comfortably.
Relating it back to Feynman: before you talk, take a second to set the context for what you’re about to say. In most cases, you’ll have the opportunity to do so. In casual conversation, asking the listener what they know about the subject is sometimes all you need. I do this often when I’m telling stories, so I know what I need to explain and what I can skip explaining.
You can see Feynman set the context in this video: he does a fantastic job of setting the context of what he is about to dive into. He starts off by setting up the scenario (different equations that have the same result) and explains why, despite having the same outcome, the equations are different and it’s important to understand why they’re different (hence the title: Knowing versus Understanding)
So, How Do We Do This?
I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t agree with the sentiment “we need to become better communicators”. However, I find more and more people who struggle to communicate well. Like many “soft skills”, communication suffers from a lack of translation from theory to application. It’s easy to say “we need to communicate better”, it’s another to explain how we go about doing so (even then, there’s always different theories and opinions on how to do so). But, there are steps we can take to improve. Along with the suggestions above, here are some more on how to become better communicators.
- Know what you’re talking about: take a subject and run it through Feynman’s techniques to learn better. If you’re an advocate on human rights issues, work on what you learn until you can explain it to anyone. If you’re a professor, spend time translating what you’re an expert at into simple language.
- Pretend you’re talking to children: when you’re making sense of a new subject, try to do so as if you’re teaching your 7-year-old niece or a classroom in elementary school you’re visiting. This streamlines what’s going on in your head and makes you focus on “do I understand this enough to explain this?”
- Put the listener in the driver’s seat: make sure they’re as close to the center of what you’re saying as best as possible. Guide them along, making sure to explain details and clarify where needed.
- Ask clarifying questions: this allows you to determine whether they understand a subject or are new to it, which allows you to adjust what you’re saying.
- Educate on complex subjects: if you know the listener has no idea what you’re talking about, educate them first. This gets easier to do when you ask clarifying questions.
- Seek to understand: if someone is telling you something, ask them questions to make sure you get what they’re saying. This shows you’re interested in what they’re saying, and it helps you actually get it.
- Always end with the important point: I’ve gotten flak for being “repetitive” but my goal with every story I tell or message I’m trying to get across is to make sure the listener leaves knowing what I want them to know. At the end of my message, I’ll condense everything previously said into one core idea, and leave that with the audience (or, I’ll ask them what they got out of it).
There’s no shortage of horror stories when it comes to communication. He-said-she-said’s, botched speeches, PR crisis’ and boring professors that leave their students more confused than when they started. But it doesn’t need to be this way. We can get better at communicating with one another, and we can help others along the way. It’s a long process, but the more we work at it, the less unnecessary arguments we’ll have, the less conflict we’ll see, the better we’ll learn, and the happier we’ll be. By using the Feynman techniques to make sense of what we’re saying, speaking in a way that connects with the listener, and learning a subject so well we can teach it to a child, we’ll start solving some of the fundamental communication issues in our society.
Carpe diem, kids.
Resources & Authors
- Words that Work: Frank Luntz
- Don’t Think of an Elephant: George Lakoff
- The Charisma Myth: Olivia Fox Cabane
- Confessions of a Public Speaker: Scott Berkun
- Richard Feynman
- Thomas Frank