How do you Explain a complex idea? A couple of years ago, I sat in the audience of top-notch financial advisors and listened to a Nobel Prizing winning economist explain something vital to their profession. Now granted, I am NOT a professional in the financial business, BUT, I spend a lot of time working in that industry, so I have a working knowledge of the profession. I had my sketchbook out ready to take vital notes. After about 10 minutes, I turned to the person next to me and whispered; excuse me, but do you have any idea what he is talking about? He answered; not a clue. After another 10 minutes of my searching for meaning, I turned to the other person sitting next to me and whispered; excuse me, but do you have any idea what this guy is talking about? She answered and this is a direct quote; “I checked out 10 minutes ago”. On the bus ride back to the conference hotel, I asked everyone I could find if they knew what the subject was and if they understood the “vital” data. I couldn’t find one person, one financial professional that understood the 40-minute talk.
Richard Feynman was one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists and was a Nobel Prize winner for his work on elemental particles and in the new field of quantum mechanics. Yeah, he was a genius, but that’s not what I want to write about. I want to write about making your subject accessible.
When I was a very young writer, I had a monthly column in a magazine. When I turned in my first article the editor called me and said; “This stinks. I can’t even edit it to make it publishable.” OUCH. I thought it was pretty good. He said; “I’ve heard you speak many times and watch you mesmerize a room. Write like you talk.” Nuff said! It changed forever the way I look at my writing. That advice made me look at my skills and shift my “writing voice” to make a topic not only understandable but impactful.
Feynman was always trying to communicate stuff that would give you “tired head” within minutes. Hell, the aspects that make up the physical world turn out to be really complex and difficult to explain.
From Complex to Simple
I often listen to science videos on YouTube and look for the presenters that make complex ideas accessible. They took their time and if it really existed, the “oh I get it” lightbulb was visible over their heads.
In order to find your voice and marry your unique style with what you want to write about, follow Richard Feynman’s rules:
- Make SURE you know the idea you want to write about.
- Write it out like you were going to teach it. And speak it out loud while you are writing. This is a biggy!
- If you get stuck go back to and re-study the subject. It works every time.
- Make sure you have explained the topic from beginning to middle to end.
You’re not done.
Now go back and simplify everything you wrote. Look for a common language. Add images where they will help explain it. Feynman wasn’t talking about dumbing down the topic, he just was always searching for common ground.
If the topic still appears a little confusing, you didn’t understand well enough.
It takes work to make a subject understandable. Feynman worked HARD at it. He was nicknamed “the great explainer”. He said about his style: “The first principle is that you must not to fool yourself – and you are the easiest to fool.” My friend and financial wizard, Gary Rosenstein said he used this test: “Go home and give the presentation to your wife, roommate or mom. If they understood it, you’re ready. If not, you AIN’T!”