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How to Explain a Technical Subject to a Non-Technical Audience

Web Developer

Knowing how to use your knowledge to solve a problem is one thing, but understanding how to teach someone else something you understand completely is a whole other set of skills – especially when they don’t know a thing about it.

In this article, I’ll introduce you to the methods I have found useful when explaining technically challenging topics to people with no strong or no technical background at all. We’ll kick the article off with why this skill is important for you and how it’ll help you grow as a communicator. Whether you’re a developer, project manager, or marketing specialist, I firmly believe that you'll get some use out of this article.

*Please keep in mind that the techniques I'm about to share with you are based on my personal experiences and may not be entirely applicable to your situation. Teaching and communication have a lot more layers than what I'll cover in this article.

Why is it important for me to know this?

If you work in tech, I’m sure you participate in meetings where you need to explain how something works on your platform, whether it’s mobile, backend, frontend, etc. What happens when other meeting participants don’t understand what you’re trying to explain? Be honest here – do you feel like giving up? Sure, that would be the easiest option, but don’t call it a day just yet. Believe it or not, there is a way around it. Just incorporate the following methods into your next meeting and see how it goes. To steer clear of misunderstandings, before you start explaining anything, make sure you yourself fully understand the topic. 

Know your audience, but don’t assume anything

Before kicking off the meeting, always check with other attendees if they have any prior experience or knowledge about the topic you’re going to discuss. This will help you get a feel of where the conversation could go and whether it might get too technical for them. If it’s someone you’ve worked with before, you’ll most likely already have an insight into their level of knowledge. What’s important to note here is that you should never assume someone’s familiarity with a topic – especially if it’s out of their field of expertise. Overusing technical terms can confuse those with lesser knowledge, and that’s something you want to avoid.

Develop stories and compare them with life scenarios

If you're going to discuss a tech-heavy topic in the meeting and you anticipate that it might be challenging for a non-technical audience to grasp, you can spice things up by incorporating real-life examples into the conversation. Try to think of a relatable situation that can help bridge the gap and make it easier for them to understand. Or you can just go ahead with my example. 😀

This is the story I use when explaining tokens, cookies, authorization, and authentication to my fellow colleagues:

Imagine you’re headed to visit your lawyer for the first time. To set foot in his office, first, you need to enter his office building. At the entrance, you’re greeted by the receptionist who asks about your credentials. Sometimes it’s enough to leave your last name, but other times you’ll need to hand over your ID. This is when the receptionist checks the system to see if you have a scheduled appointment with the lawyer and the “right” to access the building. Now, this would be the equivalent of you trying to sign in to a website where the server usually asks you for your username and password, a.k.a. your authentication. Once the receptionist confirms your meeting and makes sure your identification documents are valid, you’ll get an accreditation that states you’re a visitor/client/something else which opens the doors to certain parts of the building. For example, as a visitor, you can only access the lobby and the restroom, while as a client, you can meet with the lawyer as well. This is equal to getting a token or a cookie from a website, which you’ll unknowingly use to access certain parts of the website the authorization. The administrator can access even higher levels of security parts of the app. Last but not least, the accreditation you get from the receptionist usually lasts a certain amount of time – an hour, a day, or a week. It’s the same with tokens and cookies that last for a while until you need to authenticate again. 

This story not only helps you understand the key distinctions between authorization and authentication but also provides a glimpse into the world of tokens and cookies. You can always try explaining it as it is, but if you know that a topic might be hard to understand, you can use an example situation that would make it easier to follow.

Use visual aid when needed

Sometimes, a visual demonstration communicates an idea more effectively than relying solely on verbal explanations. So don’t be afraid to put your drawing skills to use, whether you have them or not – doodle something, make a graph, or find a useful image. People are visual beings, more likely to recall what they saw than what they heard. Not only will this help a person with understanding the issue itself, but it will also connect the issue and the explanation with a visual representation. 

Also, let me introduce you to something called The picture superiority effect which states that the human memory is extremely sensitive to the symbolic modality of presentation of event information. You can read more about it in this piece by Terry L. Childers; Michael J. Houston.

Feel the room

This goes for everything in life, but it’s especially important in the context we’re talking about. During a conversation or a meeting, people often give verbal and nonverbal signals that can serve as feedback. This will usually indicate if you need to slow down, simplify something, or repeat yourself, so whoever you’re explaining it to feels less confused. To find out how they’re feeling, you can always incorporate these questions into your meeting: Everything clear so far? Are you following me, or do I need to slow down?

Most people will give you an honest answer if you ask them directly and it will help you keep track of whether they’re following you or not. This is, of course, just general advice: you should adjust your actions to your audience’s reactions and signals. 

Use humor and keep it simple

What’s a better way to ease up a heavy topic than with a splash of humor? To break the ice, in some meetings I’d use a line like: I know this isn’t the most interesting topic, so if some of you fall asleep, I won’t judge you, but I’ll wake you up, and I’d usually get some laughs out of it. Probably pity laughs, but it still counts. 😀 This, of course, depends on the audience and the seriousness of the meeting. You have to know when it’s appropriate to go with a humorous approach. Other than bringing a little humor into it, it’s important to treat everyone in the meeting as equals. This means always using simple language, plain words and to not complicate matters more than you have to.

Give hard topics a context and a bigger picture

Sometimes it’s easier to comprehend how something works by demonstrating how it fits a bigger picture and by putting it into context. Here’s an example:

Imagine you’re talking to a Project manager, trying to explain why the code can’t be live at the exact same moment you finish developing. Let’s say you’re using GitHub for versioning – this means you’ll have to explain what’s a pull request and get someone to approve your code. To you, this is an easy concept to understand because you’ve done it so many times. But to a Project manager, for example, it might not be clear why it’s essential to have another pair of eyes to check the code. If that’s the case, I suggest you use a different approach and explain the bigger picture; talk about what’s a pipeline, why you’re doing PR in the first place, walk them through the topic of commits and pushes and lastly, explain the importance of a PR. 

This is just one of the examples I use at work, which proves to be very successful. By giving a phrase a context, you also give it purpose, and that way, half of the explaining is usually done.

Be realistic with yourself

It’s important to stay rational when creating expectations about teaching someone a certain topic. To be fair, some topics need vast background knowledge to even understand the subject. 

To summarize, these are the most important messages to follow from this blog post:

  • Know your audience and their level of understanding, but don’t assume
  • Create stories and compare them with real-life scenarios
  • Use visual aid when needed
  • Feel the room
  • Use humor and keep it simple
  • Give complex topics a context
  • Set realistic expectations

That’s a wrap! Let me know if you find this article useful and if you’d like to hear more suggestions like this. 🙂

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About the author

Damir is a Backend developer at COBE. Besides TypeScript and Node.JS, he's passionate about gaming, board games, and good movies.


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