Explaining a difficult concept

As Albert Einstein so aptly put it, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

Sometimes we can become so bogged down in the detail that we forget to take a step back and to view our research from another perspective. Giving a presentation at a seminar, symposium or conference is an opportunity to explain our research to someone outside our immediate research discipline. This can sometimes be a daunting task if the concepts are complicated.

However, here are five tips that will help you explain a complex research concept (adapted from Azer, Guerrero & Walsh, 2013, and interviews with Auckland University of  Technology doctoral students following a symposium).

Tip 1: Format good open-ended questions about the concept you are trying to explain.

Azer et al. (2013) explain that learning how to ask questions makes your research more focused, enables you to evaluate the different aspects of a concept, and allows you to go deeper into an issue; identifying what you know and what you don’t know.

For example:

  • to identify key concepts use the questions: What do I know? What do I need to know? What is the take home message?
  • to explain a key concept ask yourself: How do I explain the concept in a way that a layperson might understand it?”

Tip 2: Use Analogy

Analogies can be used in research to explain difficult concepts and to establish relationships between components of a concept (Azer et al. 2013). Analogy involves mapping in a familiar framework. This allows the researcher to explain a more complex system. For example, the lock-and-key analogy was first used by Emil Fischer in 1894 to explain the specificity of enzyme action.

Azer et al. (2013) suggests that a well-constructed analogy will allow learners to better understand the different components of a difficult concept by comparing it to something simpler that they are familiar with and already understand. One AUT  postgraduate student suggested that relating abstract ideas back to real life situations and using personal experiences can help a layperson understand your concepts and enable them to engage with your research.

Tip 3: Construct mechanisms and concept maps

You can use concept maps to organise your thoughts and knowledge of the concept and to integrate this knowledge into a flow diagram, table, or chart in an organised and logical way. This can help you to identify the areas where there is knowledge missing or to determine what aspects of the concept you do not fully understand.

Tip 4: Use a range of appropriate learning resources

Utilise a wide range of learning resources to understand and explain the concept e.g. journal articles, review papers, YouTube videos, educational websites, etc.

Tip 5: Ask for feedback

Start off by explaining your concept to a colleague or peer and see if they understand your explanation. The next step is to explain your concept to a family member or friend who is not an academic and doesn’t have much knowledge of your research area. Ask for feedback from them.

Do you have any tips that you have used to explain a difficult concept? Let us know about them in the comments.


Azer, S. A., Guerrero, A. P. S., & Walsh, A. (2013). Enhancing learning approaches: Practical tips for students and teachers. Medical Teacher, 35(6), 433-443. doi: 10.3109/0142159X.2013.775413


About Robyn Kannemeyer

Robyn Kannemeyer was the Researcher Development Coordinator at AUT from October 2016 to the beginning of March 2017. She has an MSc in biosecurity and conservation and is taking up a role at Landcare Research as an Environmental Social Scientist. She is passionate about conserving New Zealand’s unique biodiversity and recently returned from travelling through South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Tanzania where she climbed Mt Kilimanjaro.

One thought on “Explaining a difficult concept

  1. I absolutely agree! I wrote “KIS” as a note on a post-it, which stands for KEEP IT SIMPLE- I put it on my desk notice board to keep myself reminded of it.

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