Being an expert at something doesn’t always mean that you truly understand something. Until you can explain that topic to someone else, you can’t really prove that you know it that well. Sure, you can spout some jargon and show some really complicated process. But, until you can breakdown that explanation and/or process into simpler forms that others can understand, your ideas will generally go unheard.
As an engineer, I love to see the technical details in any problem. I love to study how all the bits and pieces of something fit together. I love to see how data that I captured in one instance relates to data in another instance, especially when I can find correlations. I can spend hours talking with other engineers about some esoteric problem that may not be understandable to anyone outside our little group.
As a consultant, I am often called upon to discuss the results of my work to my customers in a way that’s understandable to both engineers and managers. It’s not that I have to dumb-down the results, but I have to find a way to explain it to them that keeps them engaged and relates in some way to their concerns. Managers may be more concerned with how these results impact the organization as a whole and less about the impact to the specific system we studied. They may also be more concerned with how those results can be used to improve the organization over time. Generally, results without some form of recommendations are discounted.
As a presenter, I have often been called upon to present results of my research to others. Often, these are at technical conferences, where other technical people are listening. I have learned over time that often times, less is more when it comes to presentations in front of a group. There will always be someone who gets up and drones on and on about something while flipping through “eye-chart” slides that are difficult to read even from the first row. During these presentations, you will often see the members of the audience doze off, start playing with their phones, or even get up and leave the room. In my experience, the best presentations are the ones where the speaker constantly engages the audience, doesn’t really have that much on their slides, and has tried to break down a complex topic into small enough pieces that a large group of people can understand.
As a father, I am often asked questions like “How did they make cars when they first started?” or “How do computer’s talk?” My daughter is starting to get to an age where she can read on her own and she is reading about things that she doesn’t understand. Since I can’t go into the details of how an assembly line works, or networking protocols, I have to rethink the answer in such a way that she will understand it. In her case, the best way to teach her about new things is to try and relate it to something she knows. For example, to explain an assembly line for automobiles, I explained it in terms of cooking dinner or building something with blocks.
Teaching others makes you think about what the essential parts of a particular topic are and why they are important. It also forces you to try to understand a topic in ways that you may not have thought of when you learned them initially. Students, from the smallest children to the most experienced professional, will often challenge you to think about something from a different angle. They can often open you to new ideas that you may not have considered before. Thinking about how to present something to others in a way that they can understand will force you to actually understand it better. You try to anticipate where the stickier topics may be in order to help students through the more difficult concepts. Even then, there may be an area where you have to go back and learn some more before you can answer the student properly.
I encourage you to try to teach what you know to others. Spend some time mentoring someone at you work. Give a presentation on you area of expertise at a conference that may be related but outside of your normal group. Spend time talking with or teaching kids of all ages. There are many ways you can find to teach others. Each will present its own challenges, and you can learn from each one.