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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?

5

Background

I write software professionally. While that doesn't require the kind of in depth knowledge of physics that graphene electronics would, there is still a fair amount of domain specific knowledge that others would need to know in order to truly understand what I do. My family and friends are mostly non-technical and don't understand what I do very well.

How I talk to them

I've found that the best way to talk to people about what I do is to use the following principles:

  • Give a high level overview
  • Simplify the information

Since I don't have the domain knowledge needed to provide examples in what you do, I'll give examples in my domain.

An Example

I did a project several years ago building software to monitor oil rigs. I would get a lot of questions about what I was working on, and here is how I put the principles I've listed into practice.

High Level Overview

When asked what I do, I started with a very high level overview. The idea is to communicate the broad goal of my work, which is "monitor an oil rig". I add in as little background as is necessary for them to understand what my actual work entails, which is "writing computer programs".

Family: So, what exactly is it that you do? I know it's something with computers

Me: I write computer programs. Right now I'm working on a program to monitor oil rigs.

Simplify the information

Typically, after I've given the broad overview, people will start to ask more specific questions. This is where the technique of simplifying the information comes in handy. The goal is to avoid using jargon, which according to Google is

special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

emphasis mine

When you work in a specialized field, it's very easy to start talking about it in industry-specific terms that anyone outside of that field wouldn't be familiar with. A few examples of jargon from my own industry: function, algorithm, API.

When I am talking about these things, I always phrase things using as common of language as I can. One task I did on the oil rig project was "writing an algorithm to rectify a real-time data stream when data is received in the wrong order". Instead of telling people that, I would say

I am working on fixing a problem where we have temperature readings from the rig coming in every minute, but sometimes the reading for 11am gets to us after the reading for 11:01.

The results

When I first started working in software, I didn't follow these principles, and my explanations were usually met with blank stares or remarks about how confusing or complicated my job was. Since I've started using these techniques, I've had much more engaging conversations with others. Instead of the blank stares or the confused remarks, others are able to understand what I'm saying and then they ask more questions that are relevant to my job and allow me to explain in more detail and gradually introduce them to more concepts from what I do.

  • So you would approach it more or less like writing an essay: first a summary, then a more detailed explanation. That sounds like a very good compromise/fusion out of both approaches. Thanks! – ahemmetter May 21 at 7:05
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Answering depend on person giving an answer. Or how much they like to go into detail right off the bat.
Remember, most people ask such questions as a form of small talk. The guys talk in "Friends" series when they talked about kissing. Only if they show curiosity and follow with additional questions you can expand your answer.

From personal experience, working in niche job that what most people know about "it's exist", and from being around people of "black hole/quantum" specialisation I can advice:

  • If you are ok with the person asking just "to know because they heard graphene on the news". Then you can answer with "I work on how to use it in electronics to make it cheaper/faster/smaller". An overview of what is your actual goal. Presented in way that satiate the curiosity but also leave a way to ask additional questions.
    Which then can give you way of checking their knowledge. "How to make them smaller? - Do you know how atoms are aligned in graphen?" There would be different answer if they asked about "do you work on the atoms flatness" or "so you think how to make flexible touchscreens" or "faster semiconductors and such?"
  • After recent direct observation of gravitational waves questions were "half right". So people were asking about them but with the assumptions they got from reading news. So the question to a questions was "ok, do you know how the GW are made?". And answer to THAT question given you a tip on where you should start explanation.

There is quite good videos on Youtube WIRED channel Videos Playlist about how to explain things on 5 different levels of difficulty.

If they follow with a question like you mentioned "and what is that XXXX? then you know you need to explain in very layman terms "It's a very strong material made out of carbon".

I would also say that when talking with family or spouses they are more inclined on "what YOU are doing" rather than "WHAT you are doing". So instead of describing WHAT problem I had at work I would tell them that I had a problem.

  • 2
    Hey, I see a lot of declaration in your answer but I feel it's lacking some back-up. Could you edit to tell us how you know all those things? I believe that reading this faq about citation expectation on IPS could help you improve your post. – Ælis May 17 at 10:36
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I understand your plight as I had an interesting, years-long chemistry research project that my friends and family summarized to "it helps with the treatment of bipolar disorder." In fact there was no direct treatment, but just developing a tool to understand how lithium works better (not nearly as punchy).

The question then goes, do I explain how fluoroionophores work or about electron excitation and photon emission? Assuming that everyone understands what atoms, protons, and electrons are, I usually explained things at the most basic level and left out any jargon outside of "atom" and its components. Ionophore became a "net" that captures lithium. The fluorophore became the part of the molecule that lights up. The substituent groups were based on what benefits they brought (e.g. the amination of the fluorophore, theoretically, stabilizes the molecule so that changes in light are more pronounced).

To bring this to your research, go top down and assume that the individual has the foundational knowledge. Everyone should understand that metal conducts electricity and even possibly the different electronic components, if only because the names are kind of obvious: resistors resist, capacitors have capacity. Perhaps find electronic parallels to what your graphene structures are doing if applicable.

Or you can explain the long-term goal of your research. If your project is to improve touch screen capabilities, you mention that and sprinkle in some specifics of what you're doing in your research. Or if you're doing more of the graphene transistor/semiconductor route, you could talk about how you're working on making electronics smaller/lighter which has applications everywhere from being able to pack in more features in wearables to having more instruments in a payload on a rocket. When it's broken down to the basics and paired with the application, the listener can then participate with follow-up questions and possibly be excited about how technology is improving with your work.

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