How to Explain Rocket Science

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How to Explain Rocket Science

We’ve all heard the saying when someone is explaining a simple concept: “It’s not rocket science.” For most situations, this is an absolutely factual statement.  But what about the times that IT IS rocket science that is trying to be conveyed? How do you explain a super complex subject to someone that isn’t as versed in the subject as you? Maybe you need to present the technology to a panel for additional funding, and you want to ensure their full understanding of its importance. Well, we will make sure you do just that, thanks to our simple three-step process to make every situation feel like you aren’t explaining rocket science. (Yes, even if it actually is rocket science.)

To get the full effect of the process, let’s look at one scenario. Say your technology is a

method for extracting archaic deoxyribonucleic acid from fossilized structures to reproduce large extinct reptilian life forms through genetic sequencing.

That sounds really complicated, right? Not many people outside of geneticists would be able to read that description and understand it the first time. What we need to do is condense the description down to one digestible sentence. How are we going to do this? In the immortal words of Michael Jackson, it’s as easy as 1-2-3.

1. Condense down to just one sentence

We have established that our goal is to describe technology in one sentence. The hardest part is knowing where to start, and the best way to begin is to ask yourself questions. What kind of questions you may ask? We want to ask value discovering questions that determine the overall importance and goal of the technology. For example, questions such as: What are the most important aspects? What is the overall goal of the technology? If I were to sell this technology, what would be my product?  That last question is probably the most interesting. This is because it forces you to think like a consumer. Just imagine your technology on the open market. Who would want to buy it and why? Is it something that end consumers would buy, or is it a complimentary product? A simple example of this is automobiles. Perhaps your technology is a new car engine. Would car buyers purchase your engine? No. However, automobile manufacturers would, so they can put your engine technology into their cars to then sell them to end consumers. So, looking from this angle helps you to understand how to package your technology and determine who would find it valuable.

In our initial scenario, what are the important aspects? Extracting deoxyribonucleic acid definitely sounds important, as does large extinct reptilian life forms and genetic sequencing. Now that we have the important points, what the overall goal is or end result?  It would seem that it is to “reproduce extinct reptilian life forms via genetic sequencing.”  So, what would we sell? Well in this example, it seems we don’t have an end consumer product because of the word method. What we do have is a process for producing something. In this case, that something is large extinct reptilian life forms. This means you would sell your process to whoever produces large extinct reptilian life forms. Now, maybe our sentence could sound something like:

My technology is a process for reproducing large extinct reptilian life forms through genetic sequencing.

2. Substitute in Layman’s Terms and Analogies

Once we have distilled the technology down to just one sentence, we need to decide if the sentence is easily understood and digestible. By this we mean, would the average person be able to grasp the concept after only hearing it once? Right now, our sentence is actually not really spoken in layman’s terms. To make it easier to comprehend, we want substitute in everyday terms or analogies that help people easily comprehend.

Here is the sentence again

My technology is a process for reproducing extinct reptilian life forms through genetic sequencing.

Sure, for some people this may be perfectly understandable, but we can make it better. Take “large extinct reptilian life forms” for starters. What exactly does that mean? Well extinct means no longer living or present on Earth, and the only large reptilian life forms that I can think of that are extinct are dinosaurs. So, that is what we will substitute into the sentence, dinosaurs. The first part of the sentence claims there is a process for reproducing these dinosaurs. So if the dinosaurs were extinct, but you are reproducing them, does this mean they are live dinosaurs? Absolutely – you wouldn’t make dead dinosaurs, right? Essentially you have a way to make actual dinosaurs, so why not just say that?

Here is our new sentence:

My technology makes living, breathing dinosaurs.

3. Take the sentence for a test run

Before you use the sentence at your presentation, you need to test its effectiveness. Find someone that is close to you that will listen and tell you if they understand. Perhaps use this as an excuse to finally try to explain to your grandmother what it is you do at “school.”

Now you might be thinking, isn’t the sentence a little rudimentary? The answer to this question is always no.

Think of this process like climbing stairs. We don’t start climbing half way up, right? We start at the first go up. So when explaining complex technologies, it is best to be as simple as possible. This is because the listener won’t be distracted or intimidated by words they don’t know or understand. Now you have their full attention and they can begin to ask questions, and just like walking up one step at a time, you can answer their questions to reveal more technical details about your technology.

It is reasonable to envision our sentence situation going something like this during your presentation:

Inventor, “I have a technology that makes living breathing dinosaurs. How do we do this you may ask? Well, we take DNA from fossils to recreate the necessary genes to clone dinosaurs.”

And so on and so forth. The point is that it is easier to be a main character in Game of Thrones and survive (Spoiler Alert! – Poor Jon Snow), than it is to relieve someone’s confusion. So, take solace in stair stepping them through your technology and never feel that it is too simple.

The reverse of this situation is that the sentence wasn’t simple enough and your listener didn’t understand. This is quite all right, and exactly the reason you picked someone you are close with. Simply ask them which parts they didn’t understand and repeat step two. Find relatable terms or maybe even an analogy. Incorporate this feedback and refine your sentence until you arrive at making living breathing dinosaurs.

There you have it, the three easy steps to explaining rocket science to non-rocket scientists. If you learned nothing else, just remember it is always better to start simple and get techier than to start techy and go simple. Even if it is as simple as I make really powerful rocket fuel, or I can create living breathing dinosaurs. The faster you can get the other parties on the same pager, the faster you can have constructive conversations. Oh, and if you happen to actually have this dinosaur technology, rumor has it that it would kill in a theme park. (See what we did there?)

Three steps to explaining rocket science

We’ve all heard the saying when someone is explaining a simple concept: “It’s not rocket science.” For most situations, this is an absolutely factual statement.  But what about the times that IT IS rocket science that is trying to be conveyed? How do you explain a super complex subject to someone that isn’t as versed in the subject as you? Maybe you need to present the technology to a panel for additional funding, and you want to ensure their full understanding of its importance. Well, we will make sure you do just that, thanks to our simple three-step process to make every situation feel like you aren’t explaining rocket science. (Yes, even if it actually is rocket science.)

To get the full effect of the process, let’s look at one scenario. Say your technology is a

method for extracting archaic deoxyribonucleic acid from fossilized structures to reproduce large extinct reptilian life forms through genetic sequencing.

That sounds really complicated, right? Not many people outside of geneticists would be able to read that description and understand it the first time. What we need to do is condense the description down to one digestible sentence. How are we going to do this? In the immortal words of Michael Jackson, it’s as easy as 1-2-3.

1. Condense down to just one sentence

We have established that our goal is to describe technology in one sentence. The hardest part is knowing where to start, and the best way to begin is to ask yourself questions. What kind of questions you may ask? We want to ask value discovering questions that determine the overall importance and goal of the technology. For example, questions such as: What are the most important aspects? What is the overall goal of the technology? If I were to sell this technology, what would be my product?  That last question is probably the most interesting. This is because it forces you to think like a consumer. Just imagine your technology on the open market. Who would want to buy it and why? Is it something that end consumers would buy, or is it a complimentary product? A simple example of this is automobiles. Perhaps your technology is a new car engine. Would car buyers purchase your engine? No. However, automobile manufacturers would, so they can put your engine technology into their cars to then sell them to end consumers. So, looking from this angle helps you to understand how to package your technology and determine who would find it valuable.

In our initial scenario, what are the important aspects? Extracting deoxyribonucleic acid definitely sounds important, as does large extinct reptilian life forms and genetic sequencing. Now that we have the important points, what the overall goal is or end result?  It would seem that it is to “reproduce extinct reptilian life forms via genetic sequencing.”  So, what would we sell? Well in this example, it seems we don’t have an end consumer product because of the word method. What we do have is a process for producing something. In this case, that something is large extinct reptilian life forms. This means you would sell your process to whoever produces large extinct reptilian life forms. Now, maybe our sentence could sound something like:

My technology is a process for reproducing large extinct reptilian life forms through genetic sequencing.

2. Substitute in Layman’s Terms and Analogies

Once we have distilled the technology down to just one sentence, we need to decide if the sentence is easily understood and digestible. By this we mean, would the average person be able to grasp the concept after only hearing it once? Right now, our sentence is actually not really spoken in layman’s terms. To make it easier to comprehend, we want substitute in everyday terms or analogies that help people easily comprehend.

Here is the sentence again

My technology is a process for reproducing extinct reptilian life forms through genetic sequencing.

Sure, for some people this may be perfectly understandable, but we can make it better. Take “large extinct reptilian life forms” for starters. What exactly does that mean? Well extinct means no longer living or present on Earth, and the only large reptilian life forms that I can think of that are extinct are dinosaurs. So, that is what we will substitute into the sentence, dinosaurs. The first part of the sentence claims there is a process for reproducing these dinosaurs. So if the dinosaurs were extinct, but you are reproducing them, does this mean they are live dinosaurs? Absolutely – you wouldn’t make dead dinosaurs, right? Essentially you have a way to make actual dinosaurs, so why not just say that?

Here is our new sentence:

My technology makes living, breathing dinosaurs.

3. Take the sentence for a test run

Before you use the sentence at your presentation, you need to test its effectiveness. Find someone that is close to you that will listen and tell you if they understand. Perhaps use this as an excuse to finally try to explain to your grandmother what it is you do at “school.”

Now you might be thinking, isn’t the sentence a little rudimentary? The answer to this question is always no.

Think of this process like climbing stairs. We don’t start climbing half way up, right? We start at the first go up. So when explaining complex technologies, it is best to be as simple as possible. This is because the listener won’t be distracted or intimidated by words they don’t know or understand. Now you have their full attention and they can begin to ask questions, and just like walking up one step at a time, you can answer their questions to reveal more technical details about your technology.

It is reasonable to envision our sentence situation going something like this during your presentation:

Inventor, “I have a technology that makes living breathing dinosaurs. How do we do this you may ask? Well, we take DNA from fossils to recreate the necessary genes to clone dinosaurs.”

And so on and so forth. The point is that it is easier to be a main character in Game of Thrones and survive (Spoiler Alert! – Poor Jon Snow), than it is to relieve someone’s confusion. So, take solace in stair stepping them through your technology and never feel that it is too simple.

The reverse of this situation is that the sentence wasn’t simple enough and your listener didn’t understand. This is quite all right, and exactly the reason you picked someone you are close with. Simply ask them which parts they didn’t understand and repeat step two. Find relatable terms or maybe even an analogy. Incorporate this feedback and refine your sentence until you arrive at making living breathing dinosaurs.

There you have it, the three easy steps to explaining rocket science to non-rocket scientists. If you learned nothing else, just remember it is always better to start simple and get techier than to start techy and go simple. Even if it is as simple as I make really powerful rocket fuel, or I can create living breathing dinosaurs. The faster you can get the other parties on the same pager, the faster you can have constructive conversations. Oh, and if you happen to actually have this dinosaur technology, rumor has it that it would kill in a theme park. (See what we did there?)

Three steps to explaining rocket science

About the Author

Ben Bickerstaff

Ben Bickerstaff is a Licensing Associate at the Office for Technology Transfer. He received an MBA and Master's of Civil Engineering from The University of Alabama.