My friend Art Bardige, a masterful verbal communicator, whose presentations are compelling combinations of words and images that I wish all my mentees would emulate, sent me the article Learning From the Feynman Technique by Taylor Pipes, published on Medium. If you aren’t familiar with Medium, I recommend it highly as a wonderful source of well-written articles on a wide variety of subjects, but with a very strong concentration on technology.
Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He was famous for his ability to communicate complex scientific materials clearly, concisely, and in a totally engaging way. His lectures were legendary. He was called the Great Explainer. Founders need to do a lot of explaining: to their staff, to investors, to partners, to the media.
Albert Einstein attended Feynman’s first talk as a graduate student, and Bill Gates was so inspired by his pedagogy that he called Feynman, “the greatest teacher I never had.”
Using the Feynman Technique will improve your communications to all audiences.
The Feynman Technique of Communications:
Identify the subject
Create a note. There are lots of great note taking apps that Feynman never got a chance to use. I use Evernote myself, mainly because it syncs amongst my iMac, iPhone and iPad and it’s easy to add material from the Web or from FlipBoard, which I use to keep up with tech news. I highly recommend FlipBoard. It aggregates information from hundreds of magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc. You can personalize it by choosing just the sources and topics that interest you. And like Evernote it runs on all my devices. Flipboard has an elegant, magazine style layout, and it’s very easy to use. Once you “create a note” each time you find a new source of information add it to the note. Of course Feynman lived before the information age, where we have to learn to be very selective to avoid information overload.
Teach it to a child
Children don’t understand jargon or a lexicon of dense technical or business vocabulary. You need to write clearly and simply. If you can teach it to a child you can teach it to anyone, successfully. Children don’t understand jargon. When we speak without jargon, it frees us from hiding behind knowledge we don’t have. Big words and fluffy “business speak” cripples us from getting to the point and passing knowledge to others.
Be brief. People’s attention span seems to be shrinking with each generation. And children can’t understand long, involved presentations.
Identify your knowledge gaps
This I find far more difficult than the author. How do you know what you don’t know? But I guess Feynman could do it! And when he found something he didn’t know he would go back to source material (lecture notes, ideas, etc) to fill in those gaps, adding it to his note.
Organize + simplify + Tell a story
Feynman told stories and you should too. Go back to the idea of teaching an idea to a child. You need to simplify, simplify and simplify yet again. Use analogies to help tell your story. Here’s an example of how Feynman communicated a core idea of science:
All things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.
Feynman relied heavily on his cartoonish diagrams, obviously hand drawn. And even in this age of computer-enhanced communications you too can use hand drawn diagrams to communicate. Explaining the essentials of particle physics is extremely difficult. Before Feynman’s diagrams that earned him a Nobel Prize, there wasn’t a clear way to explain their meaning.
Using the Feynman technique will help you to dramatically improve your communications, be they presentations, blog posts, white papers or what we used to call memos.