My favorite part of doing research is explaining it to other people. This is probably because it is something I think I am pretty good at. Why? Well, I often feel like I have a very small brain in comparison to the people I collaborate with, and I am in awe of the complex technical work they are capable of. (Perhaps you think I am being disingenuously modest here, and I don’t mean to imply that I am not clever, but I can assure you that many of the people I work with are much cleverer than I am.) So I have turned this limitation into an advantage: I figure that if I can figure out how to get my collaborators to explain what they are doing to me, then maybe, just maybe, we have a shot at figuring out how to explain it to everyone else.
So how do you take complex technical work and explain it to a broader audience? There is no simple answer to this question, but let me tell you what I think is the most important general concept. It is the concept of the “four children” from the Passover Haggadah. Jews will know already what I am talking about, but almost no one else will. Bear with me.
Passover is arguably the most important Jewish holiday and the only one that my secular Jewish family has celebrated regularly since I was a child. On this holiday we remember the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, but in fact we do more than that: we meta-remember it. That is, we spend a lot of time talking about how our ancestors remembered it, and how best to keep remembering it.
Now, there is a section in the Passover Haggadah (the book that we read on Passover) about the “four sons”. (There is of course no earthly reason in the modern world for this story to be so male-centric, so we will get with the program and generalize here to the “four children“, as some progressive Haggadahs do.) Like many aspects of the Passover Haggadah, this section is indeed very “meta”: it’s not about the Passover story per se, but rather about the act of explaining the Passover story. In other words, it’s about communication skills!
Specifically, the “four children” passage is about how you explain the story of Passover to young people. The point of the story is that you have to tailor your explanation of Passover to the person you’re explaining it to, and take into account what they are capable of hearing. The same principle will apply to writing a paper or giving a presentation: you have to think about your audience.
The Haggadah depicts your audience in the form of four children to whom you are explaining the Passover story:
- The Wise Child: This is the kid who is totally into Passover, is excited to learn, already knows a lot, and wants to know more. Or at least that’s sort of implied. Actually, the kid asks you a fairly boring technical question, something like: “What are the laws and statutes that God has commanded you to follow?” You answer them in a correspondingly technical and obscure way, by randomly bringing up the fact that one is not supposed to eat any dessert after the Afikomen. (What’s particularly hilarious and ironic is that this is a terribly depressing answer. The Afikomen is not like one of those little farewell bon-bons you get at the end of a Michelin-starred meal — no, it’s a dry, cardboardy piece of unseasoned matzah, which represents the Passover sacrifice, but which you do not want to be the last food you put in your mouth unless you fancy choking to death while singing “Next Year in Jerusalem”. At my house, we specifically ate dessert after the Afikomen: teiglach, honey cake, chocolate-covered matzah, macaroons, you name it. We would eat anything, quite frankly, to get rid of the taste of the damn Afikomen. But then again, we had other priorities. End of rant.)
- The Wicked Child: This kid is not buying into the whole Passover thing at all, and doesn’t understand what meaning Passover could have for them. The kid asks you, essentially: “Who gives a shit?” You “blunt his teeth” (marvelous phrase, that) and tell him: “I do, you punk. I’m remembering what God did for me. If you had been there, you ungrateful bastard, God would not have done anything for you!” So there.
- The Simple Child: As the name suggests, this kid is kind of simple and asks a pretty dumb question, literally: “What is this?” You give them the less-than-30-second elevator pitch about Passover.
- The Child Who Is Unable to Ask Questions: This represents a very young child, perhaps one who is not yet able to even speak or pay attention. With this kid, you have to start the conversation.
[Below is a beautiful illustration by Siegmund Forst from the 1959 Haggadah shel Pesach. Here, the wicked child (upper-left) is depicted as Leon Trotsky, and the simple child (lower-right) is depicted as an everyman smoking a cigar and reading the sports pages. I swear this picture is highly reminiscent of certain audiences I have spoken before at conferences.]
In case it’s not obvious, my above characterization of the “four children” is not 100% accurate, but it’s really not that far off. There is a lot to be said about the four children, Talmudically speaking, such as the specific texts that are quoted in this passage of the Haggadah and why they are quoted, etc., which I am not going to do here. But from my perspective, the most relevant thing is that the four children are a wonderful way of thinking about your audience. I know that when I write a paper or give a talk, I think quite a bit about how I’m going to target my presentation to the different segments of my audience that these children represent.
Broadly speaking, the wise child represents your expert reviewers, your insiders, the people who really know a lot about your topic and will care about the technical details of your work. The wicked child represents your detractors, the folks who don’t really care for your style of work or think the problem you’re pursuing is pointless. The simple child represents people who are familiar with the goals of your broad research area, but are not up to speed on the latest research or the specific technical problem you’re working on. The child who is unable to ask questions represents the rest of the world.
In my opinion, the “four children” are a fantastic analogy for the primary segments of your audience. That said, I would not recommend following the specific prescriptions the Haggadah gives about how to talk to them. In particular, it would be wonderful if you could just shower your expert audience members with all the boring technical details of your work (aka the “afikomen”), and if you could “blunt the teeth” of your wicked detractors, but in practice I don’t think this is the most effective communication strategy.
Why? Stay tuned.
To be continued…