Why you don’t understand it well enough if you can’t explain it simply

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Kevin Mangelschots

There’s always this one teacher who just can’t seem to be capable of explaining things plainly for their audience. This often ends with the students looking in bewilderment while asking their peers for clarification.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough in my opinion.

And that’s unfortunate, since we don’t want the knowledge of others to go to waste. Let me explain why telling things simply can be so difficult at times.

What does, “if you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough” mean?

Image of a man pointing at graphics to explain something to another person.

If you can’t explain it simply means that if you’re not capable of bringing information in a manner that’s easy to understand for people of all walks of life, you simply don’t have enough knowledge about that subject to do so.

Truly understanding something means you can find and pinpoint the gist of the topic. Explaining the essence without making the information too overwhelming and difficult to digest requires true mastery over that content.

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough explained

  • You don’t know what the true essence is if you don’t understand the details

    Image of the quote, “looking at the big picture” written in white letters on a picture.

    Getting the gist of something is good, but you need to know the details as well if you want to know what the big picture is. That’s because you can’t differentiate between a detail and what’s essential if you con’t know everything regarding that subject.

    While it’s certainly true that the details are secondary to the main point, they can make an essential difference. They assist in painting a clear picture about the topic.

    Sometimes, the devil is in the details. Something seemingly simple can be made difficult when we get to know all the intricacies of the subject at hand.

  • You can’t explain the essence if you don’t understand the details

    How can you know what the essence of the topic is when you don’t know what the details are? How can you separate core and details if you don’t understand them both?

    The answer? You can’t. And that’s why we need a thorough understanding of a subject before we can even attempt to explain it.

    Because teaching effectively is an art. It’s truly difficult to be an effective communicator and teacher. And I feel like many people underestimate how challenging it really is.

    A story that everyone can relate to I think is how we all had one teacher who was so good at teaching, and who was so expressive and fun to be around that they got the message across perfectly. It was probably a joy to go to their classes, and you in all likelihood got good grades since you were interested.

    On the flip side, everyone knows a teacher who didn’t grasp the topic fully, who was uninterested, and uncapable of conveying the information simply. Those classes are typically the most difficult in addition to the least interesting to follow. Not to mention that we often end up getting bad grades for these classes as well.

  • Dumbing things down is hard and requires great knowledge

    Illustration of the words “dumbing down” written in white letters on a blackboard.

    It requires great knowledge to dumb something down because you need to explain something that might come natural to you to others who might not have the same talents and understanding.

    We all have something we’re naturally good at, even though we don’t necessarily know why that is.

    And when that happens, we’re often times not that great at explaining why we possess that great understanding or ability. We usually end up explaining it to others by saying “I don’t know how I know it, I just do.” Or by saying “I don’t know how I do it, I just do it the way it feels right.”

    The point is that it is hard to explain something to others when we never had to put in any real effort to develop or understand that knowledge or skill. And that can be a disadvantage when trying to teach other folks.

    Making something easier to understand is hard because that requires an outstanding understanding of that topic. Some things are not easy to explain simply. And that’s exactly why you truly need to realize what the ins and outs of that subject are to be capable of explaining it as plainly as humanly possible.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Who said if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough?

The quote, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” was first said by the famous physicists, Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein is best known for developing his theory of relativity. Yet, he made vital contributions to the evolution of the theory of quantum mechanics as well. He was born in Germany, and lived from 14 March 1879-18 April 1955.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough synonym

  • If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself

This is a synonym to the quote, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” since a six-year-old can’t understand complex theories, knowledge, and words yet.

That’s why we need to explain things very simply so that they too can understand the core of the teaching.

And while the wording is different, it means by and large the same. Thus, both quotes can, and will, regularly be used interchangeably.

Conclusion

Being able to explain things simply means you have mastered that subject.

You truly need to understand everything to a high degree before you can even make an attempt to teach others your knowledge, without having the same understanding as you do.

While most people try to impress others with big fancy words, I urge you to do the opposite. Your audience will thank you for keeping it simple!