“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”
– Albert Einstein
I was recently conducting a pre-interview with a scientist working on research for a common chemotherapy drug, cisplatin. Cisplatin is one of the more effective treatments for ovarian cancer. The scientist developed new technology to analyze the effectiveness of Cisplatin right down to a single cell potentially while a patient is receiving their treatment.
During the pre-interview call, I was having trouble getting the scientist to explain in simple terms what the research was about and the impact it would have on her work. After a bit of back-and-forth I asked if her grandmother understood her work. How would she explain it to her?
Suddenly the clouds parted and the sun shone down – okay, that’s a bit dramatic. But she was able to clearly explain her research in a way that anyone can understand. Why did this little exercise work?
Start Big Picture
When you’re explaining something to your grandmother you don’t start with the smallest details. You give her the big picture, in this case “cancer treatment breakthrough”, and once she understands the bigger concept you go into more detail.
Make it Relatable
Does someone in your family or circle of friends have cancer? How might the work you’re doing affect these people? We’re all more interested in a topic when there’s something in it for us. “Grandma, this breakthrough would have made Aunt Sally’s treatment a whole lot easier and maybe more effective.”
What Does It Mean?
Why is this work important? What does it mean to you? What does it mean to the community? Make it personal – that will make it memorable. Aunt Sally may not have had to sit for hours while getting chemo. They would have tested her and then seen that it was working and she could have been done hours earlier. She wouldn’t have been so sick from the treatments.
Lose the Jargon
Unless your grandma is a cancer specialist she isn’t going to understand the jargon. So keep it simple. Aunt Sally’s medicine is Cisplatin, but Grandma doesn’t need to know that.
I’m not trying to put grandmothers down. You shouldn’t have to dumb it down to get your point across, but you do need to make it relatable. Chances are, you’re not talking to you grandma. Knowing the group you’re speaking to will help you choose more relatable examples for your audience. Your grandmother loves you, but if her eyes glaze over while you’re talking she isn’t going ask you about your work next time!