"How often do we sit down and focus on how we will explain an idea?"
Ever have one of those moments where you were trying to get a co-worker to understand your point of view? And remember a time as a child when you were trying to convince your parents that candy makes a great dinner?
Throughout our lives, there are hundreds of instances when we are given the challenge of explaining ourselves, our ideas, or our perspective to other people. In his book The Art of Explanation, Lee LeFever dissects what it means to explain something and provides readers with a road map for explaining their ideas. He also provides a useful definition of an explanation – describing facts in a way that makes them understandable – and underscores the idea that explanations should answer the question “why” and make people care.
LeFever hails from a corporate communication background and while the book is slanted towards business explanations, it is easy to see how you could apply those principles in non-business contexts.
Explanations are an unrecognized skill we all have
"Explanation is a skill we can improve and put to work in achieving our goals."
Of all the tactics for communicating, explanations represent an unparalleled opportunity to make your ideas understandable to others. But the odd thing about them is that we don’t necessarily consciously think about it as we are doing it, and LeFever points out that because of that we never consider the possibilities for improving our explanation skills. Herein lies a great opportunity to leverage.
From his past experience, LeFever gives a number of examples where corporations missed an opportunity to make their ideas, products, or services understandable to their customers. If you think about all of the communications you come into contact with on a daily basis, it becomes very apparent that the memorable ones are the ones that provide a solid explanation of the company, product, brand, etc. I personally can think of dozens of websites that leave much to be desired because they don’t properly articulate who the company (or person) is and what they are about. As a business, this leaves you disadvantaged when it comes time to capture their attention again, or try to convert them to customers.
LeFever goes on to provide readers with systems they can follow to explain their ideas. He submits that a good explanation requires three steps: planning, presenting, and packaging.
Explanations can be a strategy in problem solving
"Looking at a problem through the lens of explanation can reveal challenges that may not have been visible before."
This concept radically shifted my perspective about the function of communication and explanations. Fundamentally, they are attempting to solve the same problem. Both in personal and business settings we often face the dilemma of trying to get someone to adapt our point of view in order to take some action. The success of this really hinges on our ability to explain our perspective to someone else in a way that makes sense to them.
Understanding that this is how persuasion, marketing, etc. should be approached makes one realize the abundant strategic opportunities explanations present us with. Just imagine how different your next staff meeting could be if everyone understood how to effectively explain their ideas. Pretty radical, right?
Know your audience and empathize with them
"A single word can make your explanation fail because it lowers confidence."
This sentence really stuck out to me as I think this is where most explanations go awry. When you’re immersed in your craft, it can be a challenge to shift your perspective to that of your audience. But it is what you must do in order for your explanation to make sense to them. LeFever suggests that explanations commonly fail because the audience loses confidence in their ability to understand something new. Therefore, we must empathize with their perspective as we explain our idea.
LeFever states that your goal is to move someone from point A to point D with your explanation. In order to do this, you must really understand that person’s starting point. What do they know? What kind of context do they have for what I’m going to tell them? If I didn’t know x, y and z, what would I need to know to understand this idea? Once you’ve grappled with those questions, you can start to map out what they would need to know to reach point D. This ground work is essential for determining how best to present and package an explanation.
In the book’s epilogue, LeFever says his hope is that his readers will become “explanation specialists.” A very admirable goal and one I think he achieves by creating awareness in the reader’s mind and then providing them with a clear road map to creating a great explanation. Even if your job is not in communications, this book has practical applications for anyone because as LeFever points out, explanation is something we all do.
What will you do differently the next time you are tasked with providing someone with an explanation?