How to Explain a Complicated Technology to a Lay Audience


Technological innovation is incredible for both the inventors creating new products and the consumers using them. But unfortunately, the technical experts behind these new creations often struggle to communicate the functional utility and ideas behind them to lay audiences.

What strategies can you use to explain complicated technologies to lay people with no technical background?

Know Who You’re Talking To

Before anything else, you should know exactly who you’re talking to. Spend some time figuring out who your target audience is and how they think. This is important because there isn’t just one type of lay audience; some audiences are going to have more information and a greater capacity to understand the information you have to present.

For example, imagine the differences between explaining a new automotive technology to an audience already familiar with the mechanics of traditional vehicles and explaining that same technology to an audience with no understanding of how traditional vehicles work. In the former case, you can rely heavily on comparisons to existing vehicles, while in the latter case, you’ll likely have to start from scratch in explaining how motor vehicles operate.

Most of your work will be determining the best way to reach your specific target demographics. The better you understand them, the better you’ll be able to communicate with them.

Rely on Visual Demonstrations

Explainer videos are highly useful for communicating the value of new technologies – and demonstrating how those technologies work. That’s partially because humans are visual creatures, and partially because entranced concepts are often difficult to communicate in concise, simple words. We could attempt to write a paragraph about how lock picking works, detailing the positions of typical tumblers and providing instructions for how to hold lock picking tools correctly, but it’s much more effective to simply watch a video on how this operation works.

If you don’t have the budget or capacity to make a video, you can still use visuals as part of your presentation. Photos, diagrams, and graphs can help you effectively introduce your main points.

Identify and Prepare for Confusion Points

Your lay audience is likely going to be confused about at least some things related to your technology. You can make your presentation better if you identify and prepare for those confusion points. In other words, you need to anticipate the most confusing aspects of your technology so you can make them less confusing.

  •       Observe your audience. One way to do this is simply monitoring your audience in real time. If you start to see people spacing out or if you see too many expressions of confusion, it means you’ve lost at least some of your audience members and you should take a step back.
  •       Practice. Practicing your presentation with an audience willing to give you feedback can also help you refine yourself in this area. Your willing participants can let you know which aspects of your presentation were effective and which ones were in need of further refinement.
  •       Test. If you’re planning on explaining a complicated technology via video or a similarly distant piece of content, you can also simply test it by distributing it to an experimental audience group. You can use surveys and monitor engagements to determine whether you were effective.

Use Simple Language (and Define Your Terms)

Jargon is going to confuse and irritate your audience, so it’s best avoided. Instead, use the simplest language you can. While it’s important to respect the maturity and intelligence of your audience, it’s also a useful technique to try and explain an advanced technology to a (potentially) imaginary 5-year-old. This forces you to use extremely simple terms and extremely simple lines of reasoning, which even adult audiences can appreciate.

Naturally, your technology will likely demand the introduction of new terms and phrases. When using these terms and phrases for the first time, make sure you define them so your audience can understand and follow them in future use.

Rely on Analogies and Metaphors

Presenters also benefit from relying on analogies and metaphors. You may not be able to precisely explain the guts of the technology to someone who’s technologically illiterate, but you can help them understand the conceptual place for your technology by comparing it to something they do understand.

Keep in mind that your analogies and metaphors don’t have to be perfect. All they have to do is illustrate some important aspect of what you’re trying to describe.

Focus on Bottom-Line Outcomes and Effects

You should also consider focusing on bottom-line outcomes and effects of your technology. As an example, if you were describing how the internet worked, you could focus on the idea that people all over the world can use the internet to communicate with each other instantly. You wouldn’t necessarily have to dig into the details of how all those computers are connected to each other. Obviously, some of your approach here is going to be dependent on the purpose of your presentation; for example, prospective investors may be keen to hear more details about how the technology works.

Don’t Get Too Far Into the Weeds

For the most part, you should avoid getting too far into the weeds about the mechanics of the actual technology. For example, some cryptocurrencies rely on cryptographic hash functions to validate transactions and “mine currency.” You can explain the purpose of cryptographic hash functions by explaining that individual network nodes need to solve complex equations; if you spend too much time explaining the actual components of cryptographic hash functions, you run the risk of losing your audience entirely.

Explaining a sufficiently complicated technology to an audience with very limited technological understanding is a challenging exercise. It’s even more difficult if you’re taking on the role of a public speaker or content creator in the process. But with a bit of preparation, some feedback, and some deliberate refinement, you can communicate the goals and features of your technology in a way that almost anyone can understand.











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