When I was a reporter, I often found myself smiling and nodding my head while secretly wondering what in the world some of my sources were talking about. Covering education and politics can have that kind of an effect on a person. I am certain if you all think about it long enough, you will come up with a time (or several times) this has happened in your lives. You struck up a lovely conversation with another person, only to find they began talking about a subject you know nothing about. To make matters worse, they used jargon specific to the topic, which further confused matters. No matter how educated you think you are on a subject, there always is someone who knows more.
Any time I found myself struggling to understand what a source was conveying I would ask them to explain it to me like I’m 5. It was my way of indicating that while they may be an expert in their field, neither myself nor the people reading the article were as well educated on the matter. Using simple words to break down complex ideas was going to be necessary for me and for my readers. It was a method that served me well throughout my reporting career.
Flash-forward to today and this method is everywhere. If you regularly visit social media and other online platforms, you have likely encountered the “explain it to me like I’m 5” phenomenon. Sometimes it is simply conveyed with the alphabet soup ELI5. Sometimes people use it as a sort of underhanded insult to suggest another person is out of their element and should leave the conversation. Other times, they are genuine in their request to have a topic explained in simpler terms so they can grasp another person’s view on a topic or issue. When an ELI5 suggestion is made online, how well it is received depends on the parties involved in the exchange.
It is an unfortunate possibility that the listener to whom the information is being conveyed will feel the communicator is insulting their intelligence by “dumbing it down” for them. The communicator also might feel slighted if they are asked to explain something in a way that they feel does not showcase their knowledge of the subject. A third possibility is that both parties will agree ELI5 is a great idea, and an amazing exchange of information will occur.
To help increase your odds of achieving that third outcome, here are five secrets to simple communication anyone can use. Whether you are having a face-to-face conversation, giving a lecture, or writing a blog post about a topic, the ELI5 technique works well when you incorporate some (or all) of these strategies.
Shari L. Berg is the owner/operator of The Write Reflection, and a writing professional for 25 years.