This is most likely a general problem in interpersonal communication and teaching that I have come across frequently, but couldn't find a definitive solution for.
Here is an example:
I am a PhD student in the field of graphene electronics. Family members, friends or my partner want to know what I am working on. This can be just because they are nice, or because they might have heard "graphene" mentioned in the news and want to know how I am related to this topic.
Either way, I would of course like to explain what it is that I am trying to find out in my research. But in order to understand this, one needs a certain amount of underlying knowledge of the broader field at different levels: what atoms and electrons are, what graphene is, what electrical currents and transistors are, etc etc.
Do I start by making sure they know the basics (first what are atoms, then how metals work, then how graphene is different, then how you can make electronic components out of them, and then what I am researching on them)? Or do I just say what I am working on and let them ask for further explanations ("And what is this "graphene" you mentioned?")?
I see two approaches that I could take:
- I could explain "from the ground up", picking up where I think the person has still a good grasp of, and explaining more elaborate concepts until I arrive at what they actually asked
- I first state what I am doing and let them ask for clarifications afterwards?
My problem is that I don't know which is more effective. With the first method, I feel like it helps people properly understand the final part of the explanation. The disadvantage is that it takes longer, they might lose interest halfway through and/or might be offensive if I start explaining something they already know. I mostly tend to do this, and I'm not sure this is the best way.
The second direction runs the risk of first confusing or discouraging them, and of them losing the track of what the goal of the explanation is. On the other hand, it only explains as much as necessary (they will just not ask for clarification if it's clear already). Here it seems to me as if the original explanation is quite useless if you anyway need to explain the underlying main concepts later on. By that time you have then established all the required knowledge, but then anyway need to repeat yourself.
The same fundamental question also applies to when you would like to explain something to a child, or if you are telling a story that involves people the other person might (not) know.
I could either first make sure they know all the people that will be in the story (e.g. "You remember Sarah, the housekeeper of aunt Margret? Well, in 1972 she ..." or I could assume they know them and let them ask if they don't?
Does the order depend on the person that is asking? Or on how well I can judge what they know already? Is there a preferred direction that doesn't offend anyone and still answers the question in a proper manner?