How to Explain Anything to Anybody

Have you ever been tasked with explaining a complex or highly detailed idea to another person?  Imagine your close friend inexplicably says “I’ve never seen Star Wars, what’s it about?”.

First of all, why hasn’t your friend seen Star Wars?  That’s a separate matter which must be addressed offline.  The real question is how do you explain a mega movie franchise that has spanned over five decades?

Poor Star Wars Explanation

Without giving it much thought, you may jump right in and say the following: “So there’s this guy named Luke Skywalker and he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi who’s a Jedi master.  Obi-Wan teaches Luke the Force and they get chased around by the evil empire led by Darth Vader, who actually turns out to be Luke’s father….”.

Your friend interrupts your Star Wars monologue and asks what the Force is.  Unless your friend has the whole afternoon to spare, there isn’t going to a satisfactory end to this conversation.  The only way to explain something this complex is using the Communication Sandwich Strategy.

The Communication Sandwich

This strategy is broken into three components.  Just like a sandwich, the first and last layers are the same, while the middle portion varies.

1. Opening Summary

No matter what it is you’re explaining, you should open by summarizing the information in one to two sentences.  Your opening summary is the most important step as you never know how long the person you’re talking to is willing to listen.

The listener could lose focus or interrupt you with a question.   If you ramble too long, the key information is lost and the listener will be less inclined to listen.  Your goal should be to get through the opening summary without the listener losing focus or interjecting with a question.

Going back to Star Wars, my opening summary would be: “Star Wars is about the conflict between the rebellion (the good guys) trying to fight for their freedom against the evil empire (the bad guys) that takes place in a futuristic space setting”  (editor’s note: I realize Star Wars has a million interpretations, please let me know how you’d summarize Star Wars!).

2. Detailed Description

If you managed to get through the opening summary and your listener doesn’t have a look of bewilderment, nice job!  From that point either the listener can ask clarifying questions, or if there aren’t any immediate questions, you can jump into the details.

Depending on what you’re explaining and how engaged your listener is, you must decide how much detail to provide.  If I’m explaining Star Wars to somebody who couldn’t care less, I could limit or cut out this step entirely.  But if the listener is deeply engaged, I’d go ahead and talk all about Jedi Knights, the Force, the Death Star, Darth Vader, and our fan favorite Jar Jar Binks (don’t hate).

3. Closing Summary

Once you’ve explained the details it’s critical to wrap it all up.  As smart as we all are, none of us can remember everything that was explained in one sitting.  You must ask yourself: what do I want the person to remember from this conversation?

Based on the serial-position effect, we tend to remember the first and last pieces of information in a series the best.  Therefore end your explanation with how you started.  Summarize what your topic is at its core.

Once I’m done explaining all the intricacies of Star Wars, I wrap up by repeating elements of my opening summary. I’d say something like: “Star Wars is about the conflict of good vs. evil that takes place in a futuristic space setting.”  Repeating the main idea will ensure the listener doesn’t lose sight of the most important information amid the many details.

Beyond Star Wars

The communication sandwich strategy can be used in countless scenarios.  Teachers can use it when explaining an academic concept, corporate leaders can use it when explaining their company culture, and referees can use it when explaining the rules of a game.

Life can get complicated.  That’s why it’s critical we understand how to take the complexities of life and transform those ideas into simple chunks others can understand.  Simplifying complexities is the key to communication.

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