RadioBDC Logo
Take It Or Leave It | Cage The Elephant Listen Live
< Back to front page Text size +

The best way to explain anything

Posted by Paul Hellman  July 27, 2012 11:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Let's say you're explaining something complicated, like the brain, to someone like me, whom you suspect may not have one.

Try an analogy. The brain, you might say, is like a sponge (absorbs everything). Or a sieve (retains nothing). Or mush (seems to lack coherence).

An analogy explains the unknown (e.g. the brain) in terms of the known (e.g. mush).

Otherwise, we gum up our explanations with jargon, abstraction, and excessive detail.

Ever try to explain your job to someone outside your field? It's almost impossible. Except for a few jobs on TV—doctor, lawyer, psychopath—no one really gets what anyone else does all day.

Here's the problem: the more you know about something, the worse you are at explaining it. That's called "curse of knowledge" (from "Made to Stick," by Chip and Dan Heath).

I thought about that recently, while struggling to understand the latest (possible) discovery in physics, Higgs boson.

Wikipedia's explanation doesn't help: Higgs boson, they say, is one of the 61 elementary particles in the Standard Model, which also includes 36 quarks, 12 leptons, and 8 gluons.

You have to admit, that's amazing. After one sentence, there are now 61 things we don’t understand.

Let’s try an analogy. “Compare Higgs bosons," physicist Paul Padley tells USA TODAY, "to groupies mobbing a celebrity.

“The other particles are the celebrities, desperately trying to move but slowed by autograph-seekers."

Well, that's ok as analogies go, but if Higgs boson explains why celebrities—and everyone else—have mass, I'd suggest a simpler analogy:


"Ever wonder," I'd ask, if someone put a gun to my head and forced me to talk about particle physics, "why it’s so hard to lose weight?

"The problem, obviously, is Higgs boson!

"Suppose you're about to eat some black raspberry chip frozen yogurt. Higgs boson explains why the yogurt has mass, why the chocolate chips have mass, and why—whether you eat a little or a lot—you're going to have mass.

"In other words, if you’re trying to shrink down to the size of a subatomic particle, Higgs boson says, forget it."

Tip #1: Beware the curse of knowledge.

Tip #2: Black raspberry chip may or may not have the 61 particles in the Standard Model—who knows what's really in it?—but it's tasty.

© Copyright 2012 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article


about this blog

From looking for a job to dealing with the one you have, our Job Docs are here to answer your employment-related questions.

e-mail your question

Your question/comment:

Meet the Jobs Docs

Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.

Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.

Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.

Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.

Tracy Cashman is Senior Vice President and Partner of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.

Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.