Daniel Allen Deutsch

Web Developer


On Communication

December 30, 2015

I've been thinking a lot recently about explaining things and teaching. I believe there exists a fundamental shift in perspective that would benefit almost everyone.

It's really easy to be dismissive of the person you're communicating with, and think "Why don't you get it already?", "We shouldn't have to go through this again", or "I guess he's just not that smart". I think this is always wrong.

The responsibility for getting anyone to understand anything should lie with the person doing the explaining. That is, the fault is yours. Which is not to say the fault is actually yours, but to change the mindset to "I must be doing a poor job explaining this concept" or "How can I explain it better?".

Everything can be explained in more simple terms. Just because something is complex, that does not give anyone the right to say "Well… it's complicated. You don't have the background, so it's impossible for me to get you to understand." It is likely that an explanation is difficult to craft, but it is entirely possible with levels of abstraction. The problem is that the person with the knowledge is either not willing to put in the work or doesn't understand things well enough to translate it.

Additionally, different explanations work with varying levels of success for different people. "Walk north on 6th Avenue" might be great directions for some people. But "Do you see the The Empire State Building? Walk in its direction" could be more helpful. As could "6th Avenue is a one way street. Walk in the same direction as the cars."

In the first explanation, you need either prior knowledge of Manhattan's grid system or be able to determine directionals from the position of the sun. In the second, you need to be able to identify an iconic building. And in the third, you need to know what a car looks like.

In an article I read a long time ago, I learned that President Obama receives written nightly briefings. At the bottom of each memo there are three options: Yes, No, Needs More Information. I was struck by how elementary this seemed—that extremely complex questions on whose fate the world is determined were presented as three checkboxes. Things had to be more nuanced than that! There were two takeaways for me. 1. The three options leave nothing out. If your choices add up to 100%, then you don't risk excluding options. There can be zero exceptions to Yes, No, Needs More Information. (Sure, Needs More Info is kind of a cheat. But in a logic sense, I don't think it is.) 2. The most complex things imaginable can be made simple by smart people putting in hard work.

I thought a bunch about this today because I've been going through Steve Klabnik's intermezzOS tutorial about Operating Systems. I've probably read 100 definitions of operating systems and kernels over the last few years. This is the best. The language is simple and straightforward, and I'm not made to feel like a idiot because I don't know (as an example) Assembly Language.

If someone is having trouble, explain it better. "You don't know what a callback is??" is just as helpful as "You don't even know which way is north??" It's your responsibility to explain that abstraction; it is not their responsibility to know what you expect them to know.

The onus is on you not them. Just because something is right, does not mean that it is helpful. Recognize that explaining things in a simple way is difficult. I promise that it's possible.

Have anything to say? Questions or feedback? Tweet at me @cmmn_nighthawk!