I would explain it to people who, without realising what they were getting into, asked me why learning Chinese was so difficult. So I would explain. And I realised really early on that I needed examples to show how powerful tones were.
Like so many people, I started off using the "mā má mǎ mà ma" , although I've dabbled a little in "zhū zhú zhǔ zhù" too.
I'd like to recommend that you pick a set - and learn it. You'll use it often - I use it again last night over dinner with a friend I hadn't seen in a couple of years. And since you only have to learn one word (just four different tones), it fits nicely into the WordPack concept - which is all about efficiency in the words you choose to learn.
With 'ma', you might use:
- 妈 mā mother
- 麻 má bother
- 马 mǎ horse
- 骂 mà scold
- 吗 ma (question tag)
(And I note that most sites seem to use má (麻) in the 'hemp' context, but since this is the same má as in "má fan" (麻烦, which is quite a common word), I prefer the "bother" definition.)
And for those of you who aim for the most distant limits of human endurance, there is always "ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma?" (Does Mother scold horses or do horses scold Mother"?)
I'll leave it up to you to fill in the missing tones.
So what wordset do you normally use when trying to explain to people how the tones work? Leave a comment and let us know.