Explain Like I’m Five

You’re a researcher, and you know all these theories ranging from Foucault to Box. You know how to talk shop with your colleagues. When you talk, a string of esoteric words just roll smoothly off of your tongue. For those in your field, they nod approvingly, drinking every single word that you have to say. But what about the rest of the world? Perhaps you’ll be perceived as an expert. Worse, you’re identified as detached and pretentious. Once they have this perception of you, the connection is lost. No matter how great your insights and recommendations are, you’re forever lost to them.

A famous sociologist once wrote, “[The young academic man] often puts the claim for his own status before his claim for the attention of the reader to what he is saying.” Establishing your authority and expertise as a researcher is so great that it comes before building a connection with the audience. When you write a paper or give a presentation with this mentality, you send a message that says, “I know something that is so difficult [the audience] can understand it only if [they] first learn my difficult language. In the meantime, [they] are merely a journalist, a layman, or some other sort of undeveloped type.”

This happens all too often. Researchers will try to prove their expertise by making a presentation or a paper difficult to understand. The less you know as an audience, the more they feel validated as a researcher. However, I’d like to argue that it should be the exact opposite: the less sense you make to the audience, the less validated you should feel as a researcher.

The point of conducting research is to uncover knowledge that explains how the world and the universe work and how such knowledge can benefit humanity. This goal becomes harder to achieve (or unachievable at all) when hardly anyone can get behind your ideas. Researchers should strive to better explain their work. So…how should they go about doing so?

Whenever I have to create a report or a presentation, I always imagine myself in a position where I would have to explain the concept to a five year old. Can I explain it to the the audience as if they’re five? This is not to say that my audience has the intellect of a five year old. I use this question to help rid myself of jargon that people outside my field may not understand and to formulate an explanation that is both simple and informative. This way, the audience can easily retain the information and share it with other people they know.

Except in some situations, I sincerely believe that many research concepts can be distilled to their essence and explained in a simple format. This is especially the case for user research. You’re not explaining the molecular reactions of a substance; you’re explaining how and why people react to certain components of a design concept. So, the next time you write your research report, I’d like to challenge you and ask, “Can you explain like I’m five?” It is a lot harder than you think it will be, but when you are able to explain your concepts in a format the many people can digest, you’ll find that your ideas are more easily accepted.

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