Using Metaphors and Simplicity to Explain Complex Terms

Posted 2018-11-15T Posted by Tom

Communicating complex terms and techniques can often seem as complicated as the process of the terms themselves. Often, we become so embedded and comfortable in the mechanisms and nuances of how things work, we forget how to explain them; we just know.

When trying to convey the mechanisms of how or why these techniques work to a non-technical audience, it can be difficult to condense the critical information, particularly when it has taken years of study to master its understanding and implementation. Most data scientists have a PhD, and for good reason.

Herein lies the most important, yet overlooked, skill that is essential for data scientists; communication. When we speak about communication, we’re not just talking about keeping relevant people updated with what you’re working on. The best communicators can adapt their message to cater for a different audience. One of the most effective tools to accomplish this is metaphor.

Data scientists use a wide variety of programming languages and these themselves can be daunting enough before explaining what they do. As the industry is still young, there are often preconceptions that need to be debunked. Our Pivigo Community Manager, Deepak explains that he often has to unhinge the prevalence of Machine Learning within Data Science. He states:

“Data science is often thought to be solely Machine Learning. However, this is not true. Data science can be thought of as a toolbox, and one of the tools in the box is machine learning. Using a combination of tools for a data science project, is like using hardware tools to build flat pack furniture. If you use the right tool for the right job and you will end up with a nice piece of furniture. Consequently, use them incorrectly and you have a mess and will have to start over.”

The best metaphors are often the simplest as they have the best potential for universal reach. However, you should utilise the knowledge around you. For instance, if you know the person you are speaking to is a sports fan, and you have some working knowledge about it yourself, draw parallels between what you do and the components of a sports team. You will not only seize their interest by speaking about something they enjoy, but it allows them to leverage a new concept to the mechanism of something they already understand well. This is one of the most effective ways you can encourage someone to commit your teaching to memory.

When communicating your findings from a project, it’s best to use the most concise and simple language, ensuring the best potential that what you say will not be lost in ambiguity. Businesses are often awash with jargon, and it would be unwise to contribute to the catalogue.

It’s important to replicate this simplicity through your writing as well. When communicating important information, the temptation is there to use very formal or flowery language. This is known as purple prose, where the active voice is often unceremoniously and cruelly abandoned, and sentences unwarrantedly fattened by a multitude of extravagant superfluous adjectives renting space between the paramount elements and drivers of a sentence in order to selfishly draw excessive attention to themselves whilst simultaneously fabricating the notion of being important through the façade of long words.

Whilst you may believe this is apt funambulism (a demonstration of cleverness), ultimately it results in floccinaucinihilipilification (uselessness).

Sometimes this method is employed because the writer is seeking to convey that they understand and respect the intelligence of the recipient, but the second you make your audience work hard, particularly in a business where somebody’s time is valuable and limited, your risk losing them, and your findings become redundant.

Metaphors are simple, powerful, storytelling tools, which have been used throughout history through fables, all the way to contemporary advertising. An excellent checklist to ensure your communication is concise is Orwell’s six rules of writing.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always do.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Whilst Orwell is most famously known for his dystopian novel 1984, he was chiefly concerned with the preservation of creativity within language, something he references in the novel throughout.

Remember to relate; be concise, and you will excel.

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