In this article I’ll review some ideas from the book “The Art of Explanation” by Lee Lefever, using some personal examples.
Explaining things to people is something we take for granted every day. When we’re with our work colleagues, our tech-talk is fine, but sometimes you have that brain-jarring moment when, for example, a child or simply someone outside your industry asks a question, and you’re stumped for words.
Or perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of a poor explanation. I remember attending some very confusing accounting lectures. The lecturer launched into discussing credits and debits without giving context. I was lost. Feeling too stupid to ask questions, I felt dis-empowered. Had he talked about the bigger picture needs of businesses to make profits, and so on, it could have been different.
With a bit of for-thought, we can inspire others with a great explanation.
The knowledge spectrum – What’s the ‘big idea’
Imagine that all the knowledge about your product or service as a spectrum from A to Z.
As an expert, you’re at the Z end of the knowledge spectrum for your industry. But it’s easy to forget or even realise most people will be at the A end. This is the ‘curse of knowledge’. We need to plan carefully how we explain to folk at the A end, without using technical jargon or industry lingo. People at the A end, will need more context, more of the ‘Why’. People at the Z end, need more technical information – the ‘How’. To give an example at the Z end, you wouldn’t need to explain to a car mechanic why he needs to maintain a car, before you explain how to use the tool you’re selling.
One more thing about the Curse of Knowledge. We tend to dive into too much detail about those things on which we’re expert. It doesn’t matter to someone without knowledge if we miss out the details and even if this means our explanation is, in our view, a bit inaccurate. It is better to get the big idea across.
The Cost of Understanding
An explanation done well, lowers the cost understanding. For example, right now, I need a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to keep track of interactions with potential clients and customers in my business. The thing holding me back, is I’m not ready to invest the time into researching different systems and learning how to use them. I know I could benefit from a CRM system, but it feels like a mountain to climb to get up and running. So I add it to the long list of other things I should learn and improve on. The time taken to get up to speed is the cost of understanding.
Define your Explanation Problem
Using the CRM example, the purveyors of simple CRM systems have an explanation challenge when it comes to me. Whether it’s a problem or not depends on whether I find their explanations quick and easy to follow. Ask yourself this. Are their people who could benefit from your product or service, but who don’t understand enough about the category to make an informed decision? Does your website quickly and easily answer their questions? If not, you have an explanation problem.
PART 2 – Improving Explanations
Give Good Context
A good explanation is more than a description or a list of facts. It makes the receiver care because it provides context and the ‘why’ of the issue. Imagine a teenager listening to a news item for the first time about the Israel/ Palestinian conflict. It’s hard to be interested in the events of today without understanding the 60 years of history, how the conflict started and the religious differences. If you can give someone an explanation of the background, they’ll be more interested and engaged next time a news story appears. They’ll be turned on, to the subject, not turned off.
The context is a good place to raise people’s awareness of the problem or pain that your solution addresses. For my business, Clips That Sell, I might talk about why web videos are a growing medium ideally suited to explaining things. They stimulate more senses by using speech plus moving images as well as text.
Build on something people are familiar with to explain something new. With the CRM example, you might start with: “you know how all your emails are stored in Microsoft Outlook. Wouldn’t it be handy if you could easily keep track and measure all your interactions with a company, including your emails”… and so on. We stretch peoples understanding of the familiar to cover something similar but new.
Tell a Story
You’re probably familiar with this technique to put you in the shoes of the main character: “Here’s Jane. Jane designs marketing strategies for other small businesses, but she has trouble showing them exactly what the benefits will be. Boo. Then Jane made a web video to explain what she does and she got other past customers to talk about the benefits. Now Jane has a queue of customers wanting her service. Yey…. Lots of animation videos follow this pattern. We see the subject or issue from Jane’s perspective.
You’ll see all these techniques used in this Common Craft clip.
Once you get to the “How” end of the knowledge spectrum, you can pretty much jump to describing what to do, like a set of instructions. Almost like a recipe. Here’s one I made earlier.
Which Media to Use
No matter which media you finally use to transmit your message, it starts with writing it down. The editing process forces you to think through a good explanation.
Text is also the easiest media to transmit your message, as I have done here with this blog. But text may not be the easiest form for it to be received. What are your other options? Powerpoint style live presentations, webinars, printed documents with text and pictures, podcast, TV shows, and of course web videos. What will be most convenient for your audience and budget?
Pulling it together
It comes back to knowing who you’re talking to, and their level of knowledge. It’s pretty self evident you need more explanation and reasoning (or ‘Why’) for someone with little knowledge of a subject, and a more concise description of facts for someone already well armed. Many times your audience will include a mix of folk with less or more knowledge. The book suggests in this case, err on the side of caution by still covering off the basics. Those who know the topic well won’t mind the refresher, but you don’t want to scare off those folk with less knowledge on the subject. Instead get them to a point where they start to care.
By Keith Rhodes