ELI5 means "Explain it to me like I'm 5"
We say ELI5 can improve science education and communication.
Happy April, Fancy Comma newsletter readers! After a long 3+ years, I feel like I can finally imagine a post-pandemic world. Along with that, life has felt chaotic and bursting with new opportunities that may once again be possible — those simple things like being able to walk around with a coffee in a mall without feeling like you could create a COVID-19 hot zone. I’m looking forward to sharpening my social skills! I feel like the pandemic has brought out the worst in people, including rudeness and meanness — and it’s totally understandable — we were not designed to live in such times…but here we are, being resilient through it all.
The hardest part about the present time has been the feeling of change and uncertainty, as well as a lack of acknowledgement that the last three years have been crushing our collective souls. I’ve been leaning into self-care and being mindful of my mental health. This weekend, I set aside work to go do fun stuff, and I don’t regret it at all. Work is always there, and it doesn’t love you back, as I’ve blogged about previously.
Communication underlies our shared humanity. To make science communication more inclusive, it should be accessible to everyone regardless of their level of science understanding. That’s why I like the concept of ELI5 or “Explain it to me like I’m 5.” Five-year-olds don’t know much about science or the world, so if they can understand your explanation, chances are, most everyone can.
Read on for Kelly Tabbutt’s insights about ELI5: what this catchphrase means and how to put it into practice. She also talks about ways to apply ELI5 to science communication.
ELI5 stands for “Explain it to me like I’m 5”
One of the best ways to test your own knowledge is to challenge yourself to explain complex ideas in simple terms. Not only will this help you understand what you are talking about, but it will help your audience understand. The phrase “explain like I’m five,” abbreviated as “ELI5,” has become a common catchword to capture both the desire to have information explained in simplified terms and the practice of constructing answers suitable for an audience of non-experts.
The idea behind ELI5 is essentially to explain something – usually a more complex idea or process – in the simplest terms possible so that someone with absolutely no background in the topic can understand the main point you are trying to get across. It is about explaining the big picture; explaining the most fundamental aspects; explaining the real-world value and application.
ELI5 is more than a trendy catchphrase. This mode of asking and answering questions has grown into an entire community. Check out Reddit’s explain like I’m five community for great examples of ELI5 questions and answers. In fact, Reddit even provides great advice for constructing ELI5 responses from an elementary education studies point of view.
Using ELI5 for Teaching Science to Kids
The principle and usage of ELI5 rarely means literally explaining something to a 5-year-old. More often, it is used when someone wants a simplistic explanation of a complex topic. However, the idea of ELI5 obviously derives from the methods of explaining things to young children and could certainly be carried over to that process.
While ELI5 is not literally about teaching complex topics like scientific principles to kindergartners, the phrase “explain like I’m five” points specifically to the value of applying elementary education approaches to discussing complex topics with broad audiences of people with limited or no prior knowledge of what you are talking about. Alternatively, the same methods used to “explain like [someone is] five,” necessarily also apply to teaching kids.
ELI5 for Talking about Science to the Public
Common methods of elementary education include avoiding jargon (or explaining jargon in straightforward language based in the experiences of your audience) and using uncomplicated real-world examples — like using the example of a ball rolling down hill to explain gravity. Another cornerstone of the elementary education approach is to make sure that you are not only informing but also entertaining your audience. These methods of teaching apply as much to adults as they do to kids.
How to put ELI5 into Practice
Here are some basic principles to follow when using the ELI5 method of answering questions:
Avoid jargon – if you have to use technical or field-specific language make sure to explain every technical term in straightforward language.
Use metaphors and analogies to explain ideas or processes in terms your audience can understand, based in real-world experiences that most or all audience members can relate to.
Use simple real-world examples that everyone can appreciate.
Use images like drawings, photos, or diagrams to show your audience what you mean.
Don’t be afraid of long explanations: you don’t want to inundate your readers with information, but you do want to be thorough enough to make sure your readers have the full picture.
Keep it light and fun (where possible — some topics don’t allow for this).
An example of ELI5 for Adults and Kids: Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion
Below are an example of an ELI5 question about Newton’s third law of motion from the Reddit ELI5 community, followed by two answers from members of the Reddit community, as well as examples of simplified explanations from Encyclopedia Britannica and a website for teaching science to young kids.
Here’s an ELI5 question example from Reddit:
ELI5 Reddit community response #1:
ELI5 Reddit community response #2:
Here is an example of Newton’s Laws of Motion in simplified terms from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Here is another example explanation, specifically for 3rd graders, from EdCraft:
“Explain like I’m five” is a catchphrase, a trend, a Reddit community, and an approach to talking about complex topics. The principle of ELI5 may not literally be about explaining rocket science to kindergartners, but the cornerstones of simplicity and relatability are applicable to audiences of any age. Try it yourself and hone your skills, for example in the Reddit community, by posing and answering questions with the ELI5 approach.
Links from around the web
I (Sheeva) and Kelly recently recorded a YouTube video called “Why science needs sociology.”
On the Fancy Comma blog, we’ve been talking about hyped up science reporting, how ChatGPT works, interviewing bat science communicators, and providing tips for moms working on their PhD theses.
I gave a virtual talk at ScienceTalk ‘23, the annual meeting of the Association of Science Communicators! Check out the talk I uploaded about learning communications lessons from politicians.
Are you subscribed to Soloist Sundays? I learn something about entrepreneurship every week thanks to this newsletter. I had never heard of “positioning” in business until a couple of weeks ago, for instance.
Now that life is changing again post-pandemic, you might want to check out this blog on designing your day as a freelancer. I love the BlackFreelance blog because it discusses lifestyle issues of being a freelancer, and culture issues, that I never seem to read about anywhere else — do yourself a favor and check it out!
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