How to explain difficult things

‘That will never work, my research is just too complex.’ Researchers often feel that they are simply buried too deep in their research domain to still understandably present it to their audience.

Although, when I overhear a theoretical physicist attempt to explain a story that even his fellow researchers have trouble grasping, also I am tempted to throw in the towel.

But then I think of Marcus Du Sautoy, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, and his book What We Cannot Know. In this book he clearly explains concepts such as the chaos theory, quantum mechanics or even the search for our own consciousness.

To do this, he uses a series of tricks you too could be applying to your presentation.

Trick 1: Start with what your audience knows

What we Cannot Know is a search for the things we are not able, or at least have great difficulty, to ever really know. Such as:

  • Was there a time before the Big Bang?
  • How large is the universe?
  • Where is our consciousness located?

To answer these questions, Du Sautoy sets out with some things we as his audience already know. A casino die, for starters. Or looking up at a starry sky on a dark night. Little by little he adds to this, trailing you along on his entire train of thought.

And you know what, his technique works: by page 36 I actually understand the principle of chaos theory!

Need to explain a complicated matter as part of a presentation? Lead off with something your audience is familiar with and expand on that. Are you working on a mathematical theory that describes unstable systems? Start off by describing an unstable system your audience is familiar with: let’s say, the temperature of my shower that I just cannot seem to control. Doing your doctorate on the mathematical Sheaf Theory? How about you first go over the concept of an integral with me, before moving ahead.

Trick 2: Take the time to summarize

Setting out from a straightforward concept does not imply that the rest of your explanation should also be simple: When reading What We Cannot Know, you can’t miss a beat.

Missing the slightest insight could quickly send you into oblivion. Du Sautoy solves this problem by often summarizing his complicated message in a clear and concise way.

Are you in the midst of explaining a complicated matter during a presentation when you begin to sense that your audience is losing grip? Take the time to summarize with a quick ‘What it comes down to is…’ or ‘The main thing you should remember is…’

This is your way of tossing a flotation device to your audience, allowing them to quickly cling on for the rest of your presentation.

Trick 3: Storytelling

Even when I lost the plot, I continued reading. Why so? Because Du Sautoy keeps linking his story back to historical figures and scientists. The chaos theory is in fact the story of Samuel Papys, a gambler who had written Newton a letter, asking him for advice on a gambling issue.

The book is filled with this type of stories, keeping me alert and interested, even at times when I haven’t the faintest clue.

Make sure you too squeeze plenty of stories into your presentation. People love listening to stories. Are there any other people or scientists involved in your research? Surely you will have a story to tell about this.

Trick 4: Use analogies

A while ago, we wrote a blog post on analogies. Du Sautoy’s abundant use of analogies allows you to easily envision or even remember complicated concepts. Two fun examples from the book:

  • ‘Santa Claus uses quantum physics. As long as noone sees him, he can technically be anywhere and be able to visit millions of houses simultaneously.’
  • ‘Just as many other great scientists, he used mathematics as a microscope to be able to view things he couldn’t see.’ (By comparing mathematics to the working of a microscope, I understand the idea, without fully grasping the underlying mathematics.)

Still worth your time?

Is the book still worth reading, now that you know the author’s bag of tricks? Of course.

Du Sautoy guides you through the jungle as a true expert. When reading up on quantum physics, you could almost begin to believe in The Matrix, but he will at least make that unfathomable particle nonsense a bit more comprehensible. Providing clear proof that there are certainly things we cannot know, but only few things we cannot explain.


P.S. I must admit, towards the end of the book he attempts to throw light upon his own mathematical research on symmetry groups, but that’s where he lost me. What is it with mathematicians and their own research?