“If You Can’t Explain it to a Six Year Old, You Don’t Understand it Yourself”

Strategy MattersALBERT EINSTEIN is attributed to saying this quote. It applies well to complex tasks like product innovation, where much uncertainty exists in discovering what customers truly want and need. I argue that most uncertainties in business can be broken down into bite size topics that are easy to comprehend and explain to others. We all have endured ineffective presentations where the speaker goes overboard on incongruent content to make his/her point while failing to address the basic questions on most peoples’ minds.

einstein_emc2 photoI recall an old boss who used to say that a document needs to withstand the “two martini” standard. In other words, simple structure, the right words, and easy on the eyes. The same applies to innovation when explaining why one idea is better than the other. Be prepared to clearly tell me WHY we should invest in idea X, and have supporting evidence to back it up. Using Apple to illustrate this point, according to Walter Isaacson (author), Steve Jobs hated preconceived PowerPoint slide decks, how he instead preferred the white board to draw simple pictures from which to address fundamental questions and concepts.

In the field of product innovation, we need to anticipate and address fundamental questions in “plain speak.” While there is no absolute list of authoritative questions to ask, my short list includes: who is the customer, what is their point of view / discovered need, what is the idea we intend to exploit, how will the product we develop be used to create value, how will the product be sold … to whom, who will buy it and why, what are the risks of failure, what is the idea’s economic value, etc.? The goal is to understand the subject well enough to CLEARLY articulate the background, challenge, alternatives, approach, and value proposition of what’s being proposed.

Getting back to explaining things to a six year old, I argue that even the most complex subjects can be interpreted and described in simple terms, while being able to speak to the complexities if asked for clarification. Too often I have seen people fall into rat holes with too much detailed description, only to confuse the audience at the expense of losing sight of the big picture. Relevant examples and analogies of like situations can be useful when explaining otherwise complicated subjects.

As someone who was active in Toastmasters (public speaking) for several years, I am awed by the power of a carefully worded and easy-to-comprehend speech. One of the most effective speeches of all time, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, was only 701 words. Of those, 505 were words of one syllable and 122 had two syllables. Clearly, Lincoln was able to clearly communicate the essence of a complex agenda. He undoubtedly rolled up very involved details into discussion topics intended for the general audience, even six year olds. I suspect that if our16th President was in office today with PowerPoint at his disposal, he would stick with his “honest Abe” style of communicating in simple terms.

Another technique to understand complex topics is through mental visualization. Author Harvey Mackay, in his blog Power of Visualization Helps You Achieve Goals writes: “To have an idea or dream, and then to see how you can make it happen, helps shape your plans and defines your goals more clearly.” It helps to first visualize in your mind the big picture and how the various elements come together to form the whole. Kind of like “seeing the forest through the trees” sort of thing. We need to visualize and re-envision the elements involved to think through the entire process.   Doing so will help us explain matters in simple terms.

THE MAIN TAKE AWAY from this paper is about being able to connect to others on very basic terms involving complex matters. To do so requires that we know the subject matter well enough to take a step back, examine the big picture, and lay out a simple-to-follow delivery while anticipating the need to speak to basic questions on the why and how. “Death by PowerPoint” is NOT the preferred way to hold attention and influence action. Instead, the true litmus test is whether a “6 year old” can follow the argument. Once again Albert Einstein shares his wisdom:Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”


Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen is a scholar-practitioner with over 25 years of experience. As a scholar, he currently teaches strategy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland Global Campus. As a practitioner, his corporate career includes a variety of leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies IBM, Delta Air Lines, & Citibank. Dr. Bornhofen earned his Doctorate degree at the University of Maryland, a Master of Science degree from Colorado State University, and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota. As a conference speaker, Dr. Bornhofen presents at various industry forums. His current focus is on innovation within the water utility sector. As a researcher and author, Dr. Bornhofen published over 20 papers on topics related to innovation strategy. Passionate about change, Dr. Bornhofen embraces the creative spirit that goes into problem-solving, where smart people come together to transform great ideas into extraordinary outcomes. His articles reflect this passion and desire for continuous learning.

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    • Good question. It seems like everyone is being judged on a wide range of topics. The main point in the article is how good content needs to be conveyed to the audience in a clear, concise manner. Not only does the message need to be valuable, so too does the delivery.

    • NO… but every man can be judged in how well he connects with his audience be it a single person or a multitude.

      Regardless of religion, race, creed or geographical location, the very first connect is by ones facial expression and a welcoming non threatening, genuine smile