How to Explain Things Well [Neil deGrasse Tyson]

Write it down, practice it a lot, watch how people react.

Audio source: 22 mins in


[00:21:14] I would love to know how you develop your skills to be able to explain and communicate complex ideas effectively to the everyday person or any suggestions for people struggling in this area, because you must have worked really, really hard to be able to go, "Okay, your level of understanding is right here because you're 16, 12 or 41, and you just don't have a good science background. I'm going to now make this digestible for you." And you do that seemingly on the fly on talk shows like on the Daily Show or on TV, possibly even live. So it's not like, "Oh, Hey Neil, we're going to ask you all this stuff, come up with a clever sounding soundbite." Like you got really, really good at that through a lot of hard work I assume. 

[00:21:55] Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, first thank you for not saying, "Oh, you're so good at it. It must be natural." 

[00:22:00] Jordan Harbinger: I know it's not — no one's that good at that naturally. 

[00:22:03] Neil deGrasse Tyson: Thank you for granting me the expectation that it's the product of hard work. So that's my first, thank you. Second, I remembered — you know, I go back. I'm an old man now. So let me go back many decades. And I started explaining things to people because they'd asked, "Oh, you're a natural physicist. I have this question." And I would monitor their attention span, their eyebrows, would they lean into the conversation or are they easily distracted? At what word did I utter did they then lose interest? By the way, any writer thinks this way all the time, because the moment you lose someone in that sentence, they're gone. They're never coming back to your novel. Hence is the important review of a novel — it was a page turner, right? Where you kept wanting to hear more. So somehow the author has gotten under your skin in a good way and keeps you coming, sentence by sentence, idea by idea. So there I am explaining things and not everything is working, the words I'm using that they're not understanding. So I'm taking mental note of this because I say to myself, if this happens again, I want to avoid those pitfalls. I mean, why not? If it's done incrementally, how much effort is that? 

[00:23:15] But you also have to pay attention to body language. You have to monitor, are they interested or not? And if you're not, it's just like the professor facing the chalkboard or the class, if you're not even looking or paying attention, you will fail because you're not going to be reading what works with them. So I make note, "Oh, this works for person of this age group, but not this age group or this kind of background or if they're from this part of the country. Okay, or this part of the world, all of this is an assembled encyclopedia — that sounds so antiseptic — an assembled toolbox for me to reach it — utility belt. There you go. 

[00:23:54] Jordan Harbinger: There you go. Yeah. 

[00:23:55] Neil deGrasse Tyson: I'm Batman. Everybody wants to be Batman. It's my utility belt. And I find out what their interests are and I clad the science that I'm describing on what they came to me with. Are they fluent in pop culture or are they religious? Are they ambitious? Are they not ambitious? All of these things shape what words I choose and hardly anything I ever say, do I say without having first written it down. 

[00:24:23] Jordan Harbinger: Really? Like even the soundbites on like a show you'll have written that in the past and used it on before. 

[00:24:28] Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yes. But I've worded differently. I'll say, I've written so much about all of these topics that when the topic comes up, I just access a carefully worded sentence that I spent time composing. So if science writing was just communicating information, you can just staple together Wiki pages on all the science topics, but well-written books don't read like Wiki pages as useful as Wiki pages are. You're not reading them to be page turners, right? You're reading them to get specific information. But if you're going to write a book or give a lecture, you want the words to matter to flow, to attract someone's interest.

[00:25:08] And so I'm going, "Oh, I have a better word that's shorter and less complicated. Let me use that. Yeah, that works." But now the next idea that follows it, these become templates within me and I have a good random access memory. Because if you spent that much time composing a sentence, you're going to remember that sentence. You're going to remember what the machinery was that went through your head. And I've written about basically every single science topic that I talk about publicly. So that helps a whole sentence is, can come out fully composed primarily because I already went through that same thought process. Unless you ask me a question that's so out of far left field, but then I can sort of assemble. I have words with me and I have, I can do this on the fly. I don't fear that. In fact, I welcome it. It gives me a new pocket in my utility belt to field questions of one nature versus another. 

[00:25:58] Jordan Harbinger: On the flip side, if you encounter a topic in your life that you're not familiar with, which I assume happens, you know, just from anybody who reads, what's your process, to then understand that topic? Are you using something similar that you would use to teach other people to remember things yourself or wrap your mind around topics? 

[00:26:13] Neil deGrasse Tyson: No. No, it's not about memory. Memory is good to have. It's good to have a good memory, but you know, it's even better to have a good understanding. 

[00:26:20] Jordan Harbinger: Understanding, yeah. 

[00:26:21] Neil deGrasse Tyson: When you have an understanding of something, you don't have to remember it because you just understand it. So I'll give, I think, a good example. So if you walk into a bookstore and you say, "Okay, where are your cookbooks?" "Oh, there'll be here." And there's an entire section of cookbooks regional, fast cook, slow cook. By the way, there are more cookbooks than there are elements on the periodic table. So what's going on there? The recipes are things you kind of memorize. Whereas if I say, "Where are the books on all the known physics in the universe?" Well, it's one corner of one shelf. There's like electromagnetism. There's gravity. There's light and it's that. And so I can come to you with a deep understanding of all manner of things that go on in the universe that derive from these four books. That's an understanding. I didn't memorize the books. 

[00:27:12] Jordan Harbinger: Right. 

[00:27:12] Neil deGrasse Tyson: It's not about memorization. It's about understanding how and why things work so that when you encounter something you've never seen before, you can invoke the principles of how and why things work to fully understand what's happening. And it empowers you to evaluate situations that you've never been in before. Let me take a quick side ramp here. Imagine two people in the workplace, all right. So the boss comes up and hands the worker some tasks. And the worker says, "I've never done this before. This is not in my job description." And the person declines the task. Another person, "Wow. I've never seen this before. This is outside my job description. Let me go home and learn about it. This is great." Okay, there's two completely different employees. One of them embraces the unknown and wants to learn about it. 

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