Explain it to Me Like I’m 5 :: Communication Matters #001

You’ve probably heard the expression as many times as I have: “Explain it to me like I’m a 5-year old!” Or sometimes, in a slightly variant form: “We use an ‘explain it like I’m 5’ approach/philosophy/communication style.” It’s a wildly popular expression, and it’s almost always translated into “Explain it to me very simply, as if I know nothing about what you’re talking.”

I suppose, in a way, that is like explaining something to a 5-year old. If I tried to get across how cloud computing worked to my 10-year old daughter (“Explain it to me like I’m 10,” she might say), I’d have to start very, very simply.

And with that said, I think it’s an absolute misuse of the spirit of this phrase.

When I’m explaining something to young kids, I don’t just assume no foundational knowledge about the topic. I don’t just explain the topic simply; I explain it differently. I approach the topic in a completely different fashion

[Talk to your audience as if they have] different interests, different points of reference, and different approaches to the world.

When I talk to my kids—or any kids–I don’t just treat them like uninformed beginners. I treat them like kids, with different interests, different points of reference, and different approaches to the world. My metaphors change (and increase in number); the insertion of humor is higher; the number of times I check in to make sure they’re getting in also goes way up.

So why don’t we treat newcomers to all subjects this way? Because adults are somehow immune to the value of a metaphor that touches on their own interests? That’s silly. Is an office too serious a place to use humor as a point of engagement? No, of course not. And validating that learning is occurring should be a frequent occurrence, regardless of the age of the learner.

Communication patterns that work... when talking to younger kids are absolutely essential in overcoming communications gaps in adults.

Over the coming weeks and installments of Communication Matters, I want to delve into communication patterns that work–and are actually quite intuitive–when talking to younger kids. These patterns are absolutely essential in overcoming communications gaps in adults–whether those adults are beginners to a topic or veterans, managers, programmers, or VPs. 

But while you’re waiting for the next installment in this series, take a minute. What patterns, tricks, and approaches do you use when trying to communicate a topic to a younger kid (let’s say 10 and under for the sake of clarity)? What approaches are your “go-tos?” And better, do you think those approaches would work if talking to an adult? Why? Why not?

Let me know... let’s talk.