How to Explain a Complex Product

Six Tips For Explaining Complex Products Quickly & Effectively

What Does it Do Exactly?

As the world grows more and more complex, so too do the products and services we use.  At a fundamental level, very few humans understand how our modern world works.  What makes a plane fly?  How does WiFi work?  Where does plastic come from?  Where is the Internet?

Anytime we are exposed to a category-defining product, we inherently have difficulty understanding what it is and why it is valuable, let alone how it works. 

In 2011, I had the task of explaining a product that had no category before it existed.  This product combined several very large, very expensive products into one box.  But it also created a connection between the device and an Internet-based remote monitoring software suite.  Beyond that, it included step-by-step instructions for novice technicians to conduct tasks normally done by seasoned engineers.  And finally, it used a smartphone for the user interface.  All of this in one box – and being presented to an industry that abhors change.

The mistake I made was trying to explain ALL of it at once whenever I evangelized the product. 

Think about how Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone.  He explained to the audience that Apple was introducing three new revolutionary products:

  • A widescreen iPod with touchscreen controls
  • A cellular phone
  • Breakthrough Internet communications device

Steve explained the iPhone in a way that people at the time could grasp.  It was one device that combined three new products.  He put a lot of effort in building analogies to existing technologies, and then slowly, carefully explained the most important new characteristics. 

In fact, the iPhone had more than 100 new features and capabilities that were never mentioned during his demonstration.  But people eventually figured them out once they had the iPhone in their hands. 

Six Tips For Explaining Complex Products

Getting your audience to buy in to your vision for a product is the most important task you have as a founder or product manager.  Here are some tips on how you can explain your complex product to customers, investors, and co-workers. 

1.  Start With Your Vision

When you evangelize to an audience, always start with your vision.  Explain why you created it – what gap it fills, what it does like nothing else, and why customers would miss it once they have it.

You want your audience to understand the purpose of your product.  Start with Why, and then take them through the How and the What.  This way they’ll immediately know the problem you’re solving so they can put context around what it does and how it works.  A great book to help with this concept is Start With Why by Simon Senek.  His book is a core pillar in my philosophy of how product evangelism should work.

2.  Put Yourself In Your Audience’s Place

The worst thing you can do is lose your audience during your explanation. Think about someone walking you through a product or technology you’ve never seen before.  Imagine someone explaining to you how Warp Drive engines from Star Trek worked  The best way for you to learn would be through analogy. 

As an exercise, imagine how you would explain how television works to someone from Medieval times.  You’d have to explain electricity, radio signals, cameras, microphones, and so on.  What analogies could you use from their era – from their understanding of the world? 

3.  Walk Your Audience Through The Story

Take your time walking your audience through the product.  One mistake I see a lot of product evangelists make – the same one I used to make – is they get so used to talking about their product they forget that most of the folks they meet have no context for the product. 

As evangelists talk more and more about our product, they start making assumptions that their audience understands industry jargon, acronyms, and concepts that are linked in the product that may not have been linked before.  For example, the product I mentioned above combined multiple test and measurement devices, remote monitoring, and training workflows into one product.  I should have started with one of the features and key in on that, then tell the rest of the story after that concept was understood.

Take your audience step-by-step through the story.  Show them one part of what your product does.  Then once they’re comfortable with that, move them to the next part. 

4.  Go Slow

Give your audience time to process, understand and digest what you are telling them.  Evangelists are naturally excited when they talk about their product.  And when we’re excited, we tend to talk fast because we want to get all of it out. 

You will lose your audience if you go too fast.  If they miss an important point because they’re still processing the last point, they might give up on understanding the concept.  So give them time to think about what you’re saying.

5.  Use Analogies Carefully

I once heard someone explain a product they were building as “Facebook minus Twitter with a bit of Instagram and Snapchat.”  I had no idea what they were talking about.  When you use an analogy, use one at a time, and make sure it’s a solid logical connection.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat all do a lot of things.  Which components were relevant in this analogy?

One of the products I evangelize now is called Gigabit Passive Optical Networking, or GPON.  Without explaining how it works, I focus on creating an analogy.  “It’s as fast as Google Fiber, half the cost of Cisco, and 1000x more reliable than Comcast.”  For people in the telecommunications industry, they know all three of these references – Google Fiber, Cisco and Comcast.  In one sentence I get the message across in a way the audience can quickly understand by drawing on existing examples. 

6.  Create World-Class Demonstrations & Explanation Videos

“A picture is worth a thousand words, but knowing the most important 20 words is worth a thousand dollars”

The fastest and most compelling way to get someone to understand your product is to show them what it can do for them.  The products that are adopted the fastest are the ones that are most easily understood.  This is true for complex products as well.  A well-done demonstration along with a high-quality explanation video are ways to absolutely nail home the point. 

Show the top three things your product does in your video or demo, and let the audience explore what else can be done on their own. 

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