Master the art of the explanation with these four tips

Alex Booth
11 min readJan 23, 2021

Forever banish the blank stares and confused head scratching

Adult engaging in explanation of book to child
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The other day, I experienced what you might call an awkward moment. In my life, awkward moments come along every day ending with the letter ‘y’. I am not unfamiliar with them.

What, you may ask, was this rather embarrassing event?

Well, I was telling a story.


We’ve all been there (I hope). If not, just play along. Humour me.

I hope this sounds familiar? If not, I’m in trouble…

You’ve committed yourself to a story. In your mind, you picture yourself like Stephen Fry; about to whisk your listeners away into the pigments of your verbal painting.

My god, you think as you prepare yourself to begin, perhaps I should get someone to scribe this? They could mount the end result on a plinth. In years gone by, students will surely study this story. Classes will gather round and discuss its hidden layers and the symbolism layered into each sentence.

Filled with gusto- brimming with enthusiasm- you start.

Half way through, your Martin Luther King Jr aspirations come crashing down around you. It’s less a dream, and more some savage nightmare. Your story doesn’t seamlessly transition from A to E via B, C and D. Rather it swoops past F, and leaves H in its wake. It takes a pit stop at Q for a little bit, before returning to H to reinforce the point.

Eventually, you clock the glassy eyed stares and vacant smiles. You try to salvage the situation: Hang on, did I mention? You stutter, for possibly the 18th time. Slowly your listeners begin to edge towards the nearest door.

Sucking up a deep breath, you ignore the eye rolls and plough on regardless. After all, you’re committed. You’re not going to stop now. Even if no one seems to like it. Even if no one’s even listening.

In short, it’s a bit of a mess.

Yeah, well that happened to me. Just like with most embarrassing social situations, though, there is a life lesson to be learned.

In this case, my social faux-pas got me thinking about communication.

Could you say that again, please?

Being able to communicate effectively is a vital life skill. I’ve touched on this very issue in a previous post. Check it out here.

You need to get your co-workers to support you with a presentation? They’re unlikely to do so if you don’t communicate to them. You need to tell your mother where the breadsticks are at the supermarket? Communication is vital — that is unless you dislike your mother and want her to wander aimlessly round Tesco for an hour.

We tend to think of communication as simply speaking clearly. Talk confidently, and you’ll be fine. Perhaps shout a little. Maybe wave your arms.

The reality is, it’s a little more complex than that.

Good communication is not simply about how you present. Good communication is built on the articulation of your thoughts and ideas. Unlike telling a story that weaves in and out of sense, someone who can communicate well will whisk the listener along. Yes, it helps if you enunciate. But more importantly, it’s about how well you explain your thought process. Explanation is the basis of communication.

Explaining things well is vital in your everyday life (unless you’re a fan of nonsensical stories). It is vital in your job. It is vital in your personal lives.

It is important, therefore, that we develop it.

How can I help?

There are lots of sites that tell you how to explain ‘things’. Ironically enough, most will probably explain themselves better than I can. Just like with my terrible storytelling, though, I’m not going to let that small detail stop me.

Teachers, on the whole, understand the importance of being able to explain something clearly. Every day- every lesson for that matter- brings the possibility of explaining something well, or poorly. Get it right and (for the most part) your lesson will go OK.

Get it wrong, and you’re in for an hour of head scratching, paper throwing mayhem.

Now, I do not profess to be David Attenborough. Ask any class I teach on a Friday afternoon, and they will no doubt drift off to sleep just describing some of my lessons.

That said, I at least count myself experienced in the art of the explanation. In my thousands of lessons (some of which have been OK, some of which have been abject failures) I have found these four principles the most effective when it comes to explanations.

1. Break it down

I am no cognitive scientist. It took me three tries to spell ‘cognitive’. I think that’s about all the evidence you need of my proficiency in this area.

I do, however, find the science of how we think- and specifically how we learn- fascinating.

So, buckle up for some grade-A pseudo-science.

In order for your mind to process information, it needs to hold that information first. This takes place in the working memory.

I find it helps to think about your working memory like your mouth. You input food (information), but you can’t just swallow it straight away. You need to chew it first. Work it round the contents of your mouth before you can swallow and digest. Unless, that is, you’re some sort of insect. Or myself with Jaffa Cakes.

In the same way that you can only add so much stuff into your mouth at any one time, your brain can only ‘hold’ a finite number of functions in its working memory. The exact number is still up for debate, however best estimates put this number at between 3–5.

In other words, that’s not a lot of stuff.

If you start throwing more and more ideas at people when powering through your explanation , you risk undermining the working memory. This will make comprehension so much more difficult.

To illustrate this idea, take a look at these immensely complex calculations:

2 + 6

2 x 4 + 3 + 5

I’m going to assume that you got both of these correct.

I am also willing to assume that you found the first one easier and quicker to solve.

This is because there are fewer components to ‘hold’ in your mind. The individual components aren’t tricky to work out. It’s just that there are more of them for equation 2.

Mental interconnectedness

When you explain something, you’re basically linking ideas together. The more ideas you add, though, the more you stuff into your listeners head at any one time. Just like with the equation.

Fill your explanations with too much stuff and you’ll start to see brain dribbling out of your listeners ears. They will switch off.

It doesn’t have to be like this, though.

Let’s return to the equations. I should hope 2 + 6 is easy enough to calculate for you (although it’s really not my place to judge if not). There’s not much I can really do to help make this equation easier. Aside from direct you to the nearest calculator.

We can make question 2 more straightforward, though. Instead of writing the equation as four separate components, how about we combine the components into 4 x 2 and 3 + 5?

Now equation 2 becomes 8 + 8. Much easier for your listener to cope with.

By breaking your explanation down (the technical lingo is ‘chunking’ for those interested) you make it easier for your listener to understand your explanations. You still get the same result. There’s just less ‘noise’ in getting there.

Next time you find yourself needing to explain something, just stop for a moment. See if what you can say can be streamlined. Can it be combined into easier parts?

Either wait for the main ‘explanation course’ to settle down before ramming a creme brulee into their mouths, or combine ‘explanation flavours’ to get the same effect.

2. Context is vital

“If a lion could speak, we could not understand him”.

I’m also assuming this phrase applies to lionesses as well- although you never know.

If you haven’t already gathered, I am a fan of a good saying. This particular statement was uttered by psychologist Ludwig Wittgenstein in the 1950’s.

I don’t doubt for one moment that it wouldn’t be a fascinating experience. I love a bit of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (which is incidentally, alongside Jumanji, my charade of choice).

I would imagine, though- and this is what Wittgenstein was referring to- that conversation topics with said lion might be a little tricky to come by.

It’s unlikely, for instance, that they’d be wanting to discuss the latest V.A.R. controversy in the Premier League, or debate whether Marks and Spencer or Waitrose is the better higher end supermarket.

Their points of reference, in short, would be lost on us.

This same barrier-although not perhaps as stark as human vs. lion- can apply when we are talking to others. There’s no point telling someone about the inner workings of the Cern Super Collider if your audience has no idea what an atom is, for example.

The moment we stretch our audience’s capacity to picture our explanation, the moment we take them away from their points of reference, we are asking for trouble.

When you know you’ve lost the audience

‘Urgh, how is this even going to help me in later life? I’m never going to need to know about [insert concept you’ve spent the last hour attempting to drill into their heads].

I get that phrase a fair amount in my job. It’s what I like to consider the calling card of the disengaged. In some cases, it’s simply used as an excuse for a student to spend the lesson doodling potatoes in the back of their book.

In most cases, though, it’s a not-so-subtle way of my students indicating that my explanations have taken them beyond their points of reference.

These issues stem from the fact that explanations can be very abstract. Explanations don’t actually exist.

You can’t really pick them up and touch them. They require you to picture the information the explainer is trying to put across in your head.

If there are no reference points that link to your own context, it’s very easy for you to picture them.

Explanations like this are a bit like a coat hanger with no hooks. You can hear the words; you can sort of picture what the person is trying to explain. There’s nothing you can hang from it, though. It’s disconnected from your own experience.

As such, it’s unlikely it’s going to stay in your head longer than a few minutes.

Next time you find yourself confronted with an explanation, then, start with the similarities. Think about how it impacts the life of the listener and build that explanation from there.

3. Plan ahead

Now, I’ll concede this probably won’t help you in one of those spur of the moment stories. I’m not saying that you should schedule time for private pre-explanations. If you become known as the person who rehearses stories in your office before telling them you’re probably going to find people start avoiding you.

That said, there are many benefits of writing things down. These range from those associated with mental health, creativity, building knowledge. You name it, writing is probably part of the solution.

The same can be said for explaining things and communicating effectively.

Should you produce a script every time you want to explain something? Probably not. Not unless you have a passion to write until your fingers are the size of cocktail sausages.

I do think that there is much to be gained from jotting down key ideas, though. Take the core principles of your intended topic of explanation and bullet point them. Even better, utilise the mighty power of the mind map.

All good things come to those who…plan?

There’s a good reason why teachers plan their lessons before they teach them.

Each lesson is essentially a 50–60 minute explanation. In order to explain something well, you need to understand it. You need to be really clear with your links.

Whatever your choice of written medium, the key is that it enables you to see your ideas.

When locked inside your head, your thoughts and ideas exist in a fluid state. They weave in and out of each other, changing shape and shifting as new thoughts are added.

Now, this isn’t too much of a problem when these ideas exist purely inside your own mind. After all, you own the place. Your thoughts can do what they want.

When you let them free and start talking about them, though, you suddenly realise how warped and disconnected your thoughts actually are. I believe the technical term for this phenomena is ‘verbal diarrhea’.

When you write things down though, you commit your ideas to link together.

As I said, teachers embrace planning. In my experience, there are really only two types of teacher who don’t.

The planning avoiders

1) The grizzled veteran — they stand and lecture the class almost non-stop (sometimes you wonder if they actually breath). If they were a character in a film, they’d probably be some oracle living on top of a mountain.

2) The turn to page 20 teacher — this teacher’s idea of an exciting lesson would be to get students to work on the extension questions of the textbook before the main activities.

Even here, the grizzled veteran only avoids planning because they know what they’re trying to explain inside out. Such a state of mind has come through years of practice, caffeine and (most likely) nicotine dependency. They don’t need to tweak their explanations; you could probably record them in their sleep talking about waterfalls.

The turn to page 20 teacher doesn’t plan because they’ve made the eminently sensible (or stupid) decision to outsource their explanations to a book. They don’t need to worry about explaining things. They just don’t bother.

For the rest of us, though- we need to plan our thoughts before we launch our explanations. We need to write our ideas down. We need to think before we speak.

4. Be personable

This last one is more of a parting shot than anything else.

I think there’s a lot to be said from coming across as a human. It can be very easy to turn on the ‘robotic’ when you need to go into explanation mode. To turn into a human equivalent of an instruction manual.

This approach, though not ineffective at getting your point across, doesn’t exactly endear you to the listener.

Next time you’re trying to explain something, crack a joke. Intertwine an amusing anecdote about that time you put foil in the microwave by accident and nearly burnt down your house. A bit of humour can go a long way. If relevant- and sometimes even if not relevant- it can help your listener remember your interaction. It will more likely make that explanaiton stick.

Just be yourself. Explain things whilst maintaining your individuality. If you’re comfortable when speaking, you’ll be more confident. You’ll more likely slow down, think more clearly and put your point across better.

Have you got all that?

So there we have it. Four (well, more like three and a half) tips that should help you master the art of the explanation.

The irony that much of this post is probably not incredibly well explained is not lost on me.

Right, I’m off to script my next story for when I have to engage in some form of social interaction. Maybe I’ll chuck in a couple of anecdotes…..

In the meantime, do let me know in the comments if you have any tips to help maximise those explanations and ideas across more clearly.



Alex Booth

Using educational insight and bad jokes to promote personal and professional development. Find out more at