You can't tell people anything (2004)

alexslobodnik | 440 points

> I’m totally convinced that a new idea or a new plan or a new technique is never really understood when you just explain it. > People will often think they understand, and they’ll say they understand, but then their actions show that it just ain’t so.

Isn't this the very reason that homework assignments exist? When I was in college, it took me two years to realize that I could have easily gotten As and Bs (instead of Bs and Cs) in my various math classes, physics, chemistry, etc. had I simply bothered to do my homework properly--or, to put it differently, had I only properly applied the knowledge which I passively acquired by reading the associated textbook sections. Notably, I was always convinced that I "understood" everything I had read, only to find out otherwise when I tried to solve any of the problems. It was only after I actively applied the knowledge I had picked up, that my understanding transitioned from superficial (as in, understanding the underlying logic itself) to concrete (being able to apply the logic toward other problems).

If you apply this to abstract and esoteric technical concepts, it is easy to see why someone might say they understand--and even believe that they do--while in reality only having a superficial understanding at best. The problem then becomes getting the other person to spend the effort to properly internalize the concepts being conveyed, before they have built up the requisite interest in the idea to be sufficiently motivated to carry out said effort.

It's probably also true, however, that this may only apply to sufficiently esoteric and complex ideas in the first place.

zsz | 3 months ago

This article really frustrated me the last time it was posted, but now I think I have a clear enough idea why to put it into words.

You absolutely can tell people things! But to tell someone something, you need to do three things:

  - Establish enough shared context that they can understand you
  - Speak about something they actually care about (or convince them to care)
  - Use a format that works for what you're trying to communicate
I've told people about technical topics in conversation or presentation plenty of times. I don't really understand how you can be an engineer and not tell people things.

The article is frustrating because it puts the blame onto the listener. But that's not how communication works! You don't have the right to just "tell people things" - you have to put in the work to be understood and to show people it's worth their time to pay attention. Communicating well is part of the job.

The author does this even in this piece. He says: "For example, with just a few magic HTML tags we could stick avatars on a web page — pretty much any web page. For months Randy kept getting up at management meetings and saying, “We’ll be able to put avatars on web pages. Start thinking about what you might do with that.”

Well yeah - if someone stood up in a management meeting and told me to think about what I might do with an avatar, my first thought would be "What's an avatar" and my second thought would be "I'm already busy with other things". He hasn't said what an avatar is or why anyone should care about them. So people pay no attention.

Then the demo shows what an avatar is and lets people see immediately how it might be useful, in a format that works regardless of the skill of the communicator. And so of course now they understand!

And maybe the thing you're trying to communicate is so novel that you can't establish context or convince people to care without showing them a demo. But at least take the time to understand why you can't tell people about it.

joefigura | 3 months ago

> When people ask me about my life’s ambitions, I often joke that my goal is to become independently wealthy so that I can afford to get some work done. Mainly that’s about being able to do things without having to explain them first, so that the finished product can be the explanation. I think this will be a major labor saving improvement.

Agreed. The worst part is when they nod and pretend they got it and then that really important thing that you thought you had communicated everyone that was akin to the sky being on fire is not being prioritized/funded/worked on.

outworlder | 3 months ago

Towards the end it says:

> At we developed a system called Passport (I’ll save the astonishing trademark story for a later posting) that let us do some pretty amazing things with web browsers. For example, with just a few magic HTML tags we could stick avatars on a web page — pretty much any web page. For months Randy kept getting up at management meetings and saying, “We’ll be able to put avatars on web pages. Start thinking about what you might do with that.” Mostly, nobody reacted much. After a couple of months of this we had things working, and so he got up and presented a demo of avatars walking around on top of our company home page. People were amazed, joyful, and enthusiastic. But they also pretty much all said the same thing: “why didn’t you tell us that we could put avatars on web pages?” You can’t tell people anything.

I guess they've just proven their point. I was a web developer in 2004 (I don't miss that!), and I still have no idea what this means and why people want it. You can't tell people anything, it seems...

anyfoo | 3 months ago

The article axiom is an extension of the famous John Watson[1] quote : "Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle"

Which naturally extends to "You don't know", and I believe, the equivalent of this 2004 article. Now, as the article suggests, this is best shown - instead of explained.

A Neuroscientist was interviewed in a podcast [2] and illustrated this point with a story. He tells of a time when he dated long distance. Whenever he called his gf, she would ask him to call back and do facetime instead. At first, he thought it was cute, but eventually this quirk started eating at him, making him irritated. Finally, he built the nerve to ask. Why do you always want to do facetime ?

She explained that whenever he calls, she literally couldn't picture him in her head. Apparently she had a rare and poorly research condition[3], where the affected person cannot mentally draw a picture of the interlocutor (caller). So for the gf, resorting to facetime was the only thing that she could do, in order to picture of him.

You can't tell people anything = You just don't know. One of the same. Egotistic vs Humble. Take your pick.

[1] [2] [3]

IG_Semmelweiss | 3 months ago

This puts to clear words a nagging sensation I've had my whole life, that I (also) tried to tell other people but couldn't. Talking just doesn't work as well as people think it does. It seems so obvious once you start noticing, but almost nobody notices this. People are either just repeating memes each other basically already know, or else are talking past each other.

When I overhear people having a conversation, almost always, I can see that the two people aren't really understanding each other, and neither of them realize it. Unless the content is basically emotion only, with no real new information. If I try to be aware of this dynamic when listening to people, it frustrates them... without me jumping to (probably wrong) conclusions and pretending to understand, it seems like I have some kind of communications disability and/or obnoxious personality, where I am drawing out the explanation way more than they expected to be necessary. The social norm is to think or at least act like you understand immediately when you really don't.

I often get the impression, when trying to explain totally new ideas to people, that they just assign it to the nearest known trope/meme, and assume it's that, and are unable to see how it's different. Even when it's really really different!

As an academic scientist this is a HUGE problem. All of my really new ideas, I cannot communicate to anyone, and get funding for them. Only the obvious/stupid things, the things they expect, get understood and funded. I then do my real work, the stuff I later get tons of praise for, "in my spare time." Like the author, I too wish I was independently wealthy, so I could actually do my job!

I like this perspective because it puts the burden back on me, and gives me something to act on. How can I put them into this experience, so they really get it?

UniverseHacker | 3 months ago

This is the anarchist theory of the unity of means and ends: you can't tell people anything, including what a better society looks like (nor can you impose it on anyone). You have to try to build and live that society in the present in order to even "get it" yourself.

eat_veggies | 3 months ago

Now realize that this applies to everything, not just computers. Unless you've walked a mile in their shoes, you don't really understand the struggles of LGBTQ folks, the homeless, CEOs, assembly line workers... They will try to tell you, but you can't tell people anything, unless you're telling someone with good imagination and empathy.

invalidator | 3 months ago

This reminds me an edition of Byte Magazine from 1990 [1] with interviews of all big shots in the industry making forecasts for the next decade.

No one foresaw the internet.

At best they did expect things like "we'll have networks with bigger bandwith".

But no one saw the economic and cultural boom ahead.


diego_moita | 3 months ago

This article resonates with me. I think it may also explain why some very smart people are not appreciated; they say things which are far too nuanced for most people to understand; others often won't understand the depth of the argument being made. Most people assume that because everyone is at a similar rank and salary range within a company (or in the industry), they are all operating at the same level and communicate with the same level or nuance. It's not the case.

That's why it's important (especially for those in leadership positions) to assume that the people around you are smarter than you (at least for some time). If you assume that someone is dumber than you, you will miss any nuance and signs of deep domain expertise hidden within.

I find that very clever ideas from very clever people don't provide an instant 'Aha' moment; it takes a bit longer to see the brilliance. It's not obvious at all, that's why it's brilliant.

jongjong | 3 months ago

On a side note, this:

>> another thing I’ve learned is to pay attention to things I find myself saying; that way I’ll know what I really think

is what led to Nixon leaving office.

Recordings of yourself haven't gotten any more private since he did that in the Oval Office... to preserve his thoughts and, presumably, to document what he really thought.

If you're not a total alcoholic, you'll find your thoughts in similar situations are coincident with your previous thoughts, to the point of being indistinguishable. You probably shouldn't actually write them all down or record them. In fact, if you have to record them to remember them (that they might never recur) then they probably aren't firm enough to be worth going back to.

And if, like me, you are an alcoholic, you can virtually depend on saying the same things over and over.

noduerme | 3 months ago

Small note: Chip Morningstar is now working, with many of the original team he worked with, at Agoric; Randy (Farmer) is currently leading the object capabilities non-profit Spritely Institute along with ActivityPub editor, Christine Lemmer-Webber.

dannyobrien | 3 months ago

As an elementary teacher, my spin on this same take was that you couldn't tell people things with much success, but there were two ways to break through: stories and games. If you could get your message across in story form or have kids discover it through a gamified (or experiential) setting, that generally worked.

msufan | 3 months ago

This article has found its way to the HN homepage multiple times, and every time I wonder if it’s because of the poorly worded and misleading title, combined with the phenomenon of HN users not actually reading the article and just saving it because the title looks interesting.

The article would be much better titled as, “It’s more difficult to explain new concepts to people than you think it is.”

pushedx | 3 months ago

I was a private tutor for a long time, specializing in kids through young adults with learning disabilities and/or psychiatric disorders. Sort of my Job-2. I had tutored some even as a kid and teen, mostly math. One of the things I came to understand was that communicating many concepts, skills, ideas, whatever required a working model of the recipient's mind. What did they value? How did they understand things? How was their world constructed? For each student had to come a unique approach. This made me often weep for the subtleties which would be lost in mass communication.

Also related to tutoring: quite a lot of people fake "getting it." They'll nod, they'll say "yeah yeah," maybe even parrot back some phrases ... but they don't get it. This is its own unique impediment and it requires, for want of a better term, quizzing. Test the success of the communication. By the time the kids found their way to me, they had already developed a raft of coping mechanisms, mostly counter-productive in the long run, and faked comprehension signals were a large part of it.

These are impediments to just communicating new ideas to a blank slate. Much worse is an audience who already has some other idea in their head, and even in the rare case of some kind of objective measure of validity, you're swimming upstream. Many is the time I had heard the dreaded phrase, "I know you're very smart but ..." The objection was their idea, of course, and only after repeated and crumbling failure would it be discarded. Maybe there was now room for my thing, or maybe not, but I had often lost much passion by that point.

Sometimes I despair of being understood. I soon have to face the music in which I must explain to higher-ups that one of our data source providers will need to supply unique and stable identifiers on their data if we would like to accomplish Project X. I know the questions I will get: what if we just did it without it? If you can't, why shouldn't we get a consultant who will tell us what we want to hear? Have you asked $ThisParty? What if we make up our own identifiers? I will probably have to engineer an exercise to explain the pitfalls, and even then ... you can't tell people anything.

at_a_remove | 3 months ago

Another HN favorite. Been posted here 6 times, of which 4 where 200 points+.

Clearly this post touches a nerve somewhere.

isaacfrond | 3 months ago

> “Why didn’t you tell me that?”

I got this impression on my own self while studying math in college.

I noticed it when I made the connection about the studied subject, wondering why didn’t the professor say it that way to begin with. Because everything made sense now…

After few likely moments I asked myself the question: was the last explanation really better or did I just happen to understand the thing at that particular moment?

Later on, you get the “better” explanation while practicing the art…

We’re usually not aware of the process of understanding itself.

rq1 | 3 months ago

This is why I think it's possible to have an "information advantage", even when the information is publicly available to everyone ... which in reality just means, it's an understanding advantage of the public information.

thibran | 3 months ago

There's some pretty astonishing theory out there as to who you can tell things to, in a way that they'll understand immediately. It's pretty interesting and unfortunately very subjective.

But one thing I learned from it is that if you can identify specific people who get you, generally speaking, you should then see if you can mold newly-discovered communication problems around this already-functional communications relationship.

themodelplumber | 3 months ago

I had a coworker who made a sport of telling people things. Once he'd flipped the bozo bit on someone, he took a certain sardonic delight in predicting outcomes that they would promptly reject... and then face-plant directly into.

Sort of like the Oracle in the Matrix, only cynical, or perhaps more like Willy Wonka. "I wouldn't do that, I really wouldn't." <does it anyway>

hinkley | 3 months ago

Reposting here - A picture is worth a thousand words – my layman spin on it :)

Our brains build models to interpret (translate) everything.

We use languages to communicate and share things.

When brains share the same models communication is simple. It’s simple to talk about day, night and light with anyone and, similarly, well formed teams (or couples) need few words to communicate even complex ideas because they have shared models.

When models differ the language needs to be adjusted or learned. Identical problem/solutions may sound different in different domains.

However when the model doesn’t exist in someone elses brain to communicate, the model needs to be built. Building models (learning) takes time.

Natural language evolved for natural things. Hence, it’s not very efficient for abstract things that require accuracy. Math (and code) is an accurate language, and (often) effective to communicate models that require accurate replication.

For example. It takes time to build the intuition for some things (e.g. fluid dynamics). Once you build the intuition, the easiest way to explain it is through the formulas. Someone can read the formulas, understand what the model communicates and then build intuition accurately.

You watch and learn to build a mental model, you download the mental model, someone uploads it and builds the model.

This is my mental model for communicating models

random3 | 3 months ago

>Alas, many things really must be experienced to be understood. We didn’t have much of an experience to deliver to them though — after all, the whole point of all this evangelizing was to get people to give us money to pay for developing the software in the first place! But someone who’s spent even 10 minutes using the Web would never think to ask some of the questions we got asked.

THIS! I think most people can relate to this concept if they ever tried to explain something completely new to someone else. I have struggled with this many times with my own project.

I have a new kind of data management system that is much different than other systems. I can try to explain it to others in a personal or a public setting. I have written blogs, whitepapers, and other documentation. I have a set of demo videos that are each less than 10 minutes. It is still very, very difficult to get people to understand what I am building.

So far only a few people have taken the chance to really 'experience it' by downloading the software and using it to do something useful that they need. I have some really good beta sites that are enthusiastic about it once they get that 'Aha moment'.

It will take a lot more work before the masses 'get it' like the average teenage now 'gets' the Internet.

didgetmaster | 3 months ago

Most people have terrible listening and reading comprehension.

You can work around it (to a limited extent) by explaining the same thing multiple times, with slightly different descriptions.

sneak | 3 months ago

Sounds like the author just can't tell anyone anything :)

gardenhedge | 3 months ago

This is just part #1 of natural science & constructionist learning. You can't only not tell people thing, you can't expect them to learn until they can engage their brain & monkey around & see for themselves. They have to have a lived experience, not just of it working & doing the thing, but also need to try & see other random hijinx.

Humanity only ever works, only becomes human, when we are allowed the agency of the experimenter. When we can find out.

This has slowly lead me towards detesting applications. The idea of interface is almost always a curtain, a veil, that obfuscates & hides some pretty graspable real truths. Interface & apps often take something real & make it virtual, impervious, symbic, in a decoupled lying way. We are complicit all too often in raising a worse, in-natural science helpless version of humanity. We say it helps users to get tasks done. But it's all fractured narrow experiences, something small distilled out where few lessons port. It masks, without any chance to begin to improve beyond, to see like a human ought to be able to.

rektide | 3 months ago

Taking this to the logical extreme are things that can only be experienced. E.g. I can read about oysters, but I will never be able to understand what an oyster tastes like until I eat one... until I experience it.

When communicating, the more the topic involves an experience the harder it is to communicate. We use metaphor, simile, and analogies to help people relate it to something with which they are familiar, but it fails for many reasons. When building a prototype for a new camera system, we began with a physical mock up which was cut from wood and painted. The client's first comment was that is was garbage because no one would take a wooden camera seriously. Even after an hour-long presentation, his final comment was "This all sounds great, but it absolutely cannot be made out of wood." Some people have terribly abstraction skills, and there's simply no getting through to them until they see the final product. They need the experience to understand.

mortify | 3 months ago

This suggests to me the difference between understanding and fluency.


Understanding is relatively easy, with good communication. "Oh, that makes sense!"

It happens in our working memory, which operates somewhat symbolically, but can't hold much, iterate, generalize, or interpolate well. And forgets quickly.

You can "give" understanding, but it requires spelling out everything to be understood, very clearly. And it won't stick.

People will "feel" they understand for a moment. The big "win" is if they later recall you said something or other that seemed to make sense.


Fluency begins when we have experienced something ourselves.

It is all about training our subconscious, the more intuitive part of our brain, which is very sensory and intuition driven. A lot like deep learning.

It compresses sample experiences into a general, spontaneously available form, usable in combinations with other fluencies, and give you "light bulb" epiphany moments when new combinations are surprising.

It is very hard to "give" fluency.

But you can smooth the path, by making experiences clear, fun, interesting, useful, surprising, low barrier, and low latency.

Nevermark | 3 months ago

It's worth reading The Design of Design by Fred Brooks

Sevan777 | 3 months ago

I always say it is non-trivial to achieve a meeting of the minds. We often act adversarially to new ideas to challenge them as they in turn challenge our conceptions. Often this looks like arguing and many people ain’t got time for that, it can be emotional, you’re not listening, just give it 5 mins, no you’re wrong, etc. This is not a failing of individuals so much as the impedance to aligning two different cognitive patterns. One does not simply walk into a new cognitive state you have to do battle with your own and another’s conceptions and in the face of imperfect communication.

lootsauce | 3 months ago

Part of it can be explained by the curse of knowledge - many people explain things to others how they would explain to themselves. The key difference is to figure out how to explain it to someone else, not a copy of you.

xvilka | 3 months ago

This text resonates so much with the situation my team and I are experiencing right now. We are working on a Sales Territory management module which sits on basic concepts the typical field sales managers deals with every day. So what sounds totally obvious to our product owner, a former sales manager, is kind of out of this world alien talk to our devs. We are working on prototypes so they can understand things as they use something. The schemas on the PowerPoints didn't help at all.

rodolphoarruda | 3 months ago

Or maybe, just maybe, Xanadu wasn't as great idea as he thinks.

peppermint_gum | 3 months ago

One thing I hate about the delete button is that it is a standard thing. Quite literally every application has a delete button, it's asking you to confirm, and poof its gone. Designers going out of their way to reinvent things in a way that people don't expect are adding things in the way of usability. Cuteness shouldn't be at the expense of ease of use

charles_f | 3 months ago
| 3 months ago

This reminds me of Steve Jobs saying that people don't know what they want until you give it to them. To me, sometimes, it sounds a bit arrogant but definitely true in my experience. I would never have seen the value in an expensive fragile small-computer with a tiny screen that you have to squint to see until I actually used one.

AlexanderTheGr8 | 3 months ago

This hit home hard. Wondering if this is the case with giving advice as well ? In case of giving advice you are not selling a product but definitely selling an alternative path of action you would like there other person to take. And they will only take it if they understand you in the first place.

zuj | 3 months ago

Show, don't tell.

narag | 3 months ago

“知行合一” a concept in Yangmingism, a philosophy developed by the Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming. It refers to the unity of inner knowledge and action, and is explained as "Nobody can separate the knowledge and the action apart. If one knows, one will act"

fits the article very well

nikola_virtual | 3 months ago

> People would ask astonishing questions, like “who’s going to pay to make all those links?” or “why would anyone want to put documents online?”

Isn't the answer to those ultimately "online ads"?

scotty79 | 3 months ago

I think this is related to the AI alignment problem; our human languages simply aren't precise enough to communicate with any guarantee that our intent will be correctly conveyed.

bloaf | 3 months ago

I like to think of the bike problem. Sit down and draw a picture of a bike from memory in as much detail as you can in 2 minutes. Easy right? But it is surprisingly hard.

nice2meetu | 3 months ago

> I often joke that my goal is to become independently wealthy so that I can afford to get some work done. Mainly that’s about being able to do things without having to explain them first, so that the finished product can be the explanation. I think this will be a major labor saving improvement.

In the context of software if you want to build something you will need a team. A team requires funding. I'm excited for AI tools like GPT/Copilot/etc. to be that team. If the price is reasonable no one needs to have enough wealth to employ other knowledge workers.

mdmglr | 3 months ago

> I often joke that my goal is to become independently wealthy so that I can afford to get some work done.

This resonates with me so much today it's uncanny.

bilekas | 3 months ago

Step 1: Passive learn the whole material! Whole course!

Step 2: Now with the whole picture and terminology in mind you can embark on active learning the course!

tomerbd | 3 months ago
| 3 months ago


The key is noticing that actions betray not getting it.

garrickvanburen | 3 months ago
| 3 months ago
| 3 months ago