Book: The Art of Explanation


(ISBN 978-1-118-34758)

Amazon Look Inside preview

I work with clients who have complicated things to say to the public. Topics like physics, policy, engineering and ethics.

It is frustrating and wonderful. Here’s why:

Even though we all speak English and/or French, there are also languages we each speak that can be totally foreign to others, the Language of 9-5. We spend 8 hours a day talking to our coworkers in the language of our business: baking, nuclear physics, legal frameworks, aviation, military, medicine. The words are English or French, but the meaning, the acronyms  even the assumptions are all mysterious language to people outside our 9-5 tribe.

Just try and answer “How was your day?”  in any sort of technical detail to someone unfamiliar with what you do.

This is a bigger language gap than just about anyone can appreciate. In fact, you are wired to not appreciate it, because the mind is so good at turning “new and crazy” into “normal” in just a few days or minutes.

In The Art of Explanation, Lee Lefever sums this language gap up as the “Curse of Knowledge”. And lordy, does that hit home for me.

I see it when a client attempts to do public outreach. This is the frustrating part of “Frustrating and wonderful”.

Typically, they start in the middle of and concept and then dive way, way too deep. They know the fundamentals so thoroughly it’s like asking a fish about water. They have it all summed up beautifully in a PowerPoint slide that looks precisely like the Mayan Calendar Wheel of the Apocalypse. Their presentations are well received at industry conferences, so hey, they have no problem with outreach, they just need it cleaned up a bit and put in front of the public. No problem, right?

What they really need to do is step back and start from square one. The Curse of Knowledge, however, is a curse because when you know a topic well enough, you most likely can’t even find square one again. Think of it this way – could you ever unlearn to skate? Can you even remember when it was hard, or how to skate like an amateur?

Lee often shows a particular species of graph in his book: at  one end of this graph is the audience and at the other is you – the person that wants to get a message across and have the audience understand it. Really understand it. The space between –  that’s the gap in language, and your audience never agreed to meet you in the middle. You are making a promise in Public Outreach, to fully bridge the gap, and bring the public along for the trip towards your end of the spectrum – to better understanding.

So, you are going to need some tools to bridge this gap, to bring the audience to your side, to the “I get It!” side. His book is a toolbox, carefully organized and complete.

He begins with two chapters that diagnose the problem in clear and brutal terms: What is an Explanation and Why Explanations Fail. They essentially remove any sort of illusions you might have about the traditional approach of getting an idea to an audience AND having them understand it. It’s like finding out your team is all quarterbacks and no receivers. It kind of hurts to read, actually.

However part Two is where the toolbox is opened up and the steps needed to build a bridge of explanation and understanding are laid out one at a time: Context, Story, Connections, Description, Simplification, Constraints, and finally the end where most people start: Writing.

The book itself is an example of the craft of explanation – you would expect it to be. There are analogies, examples, clear writing, storytelling,  and yes, it works. And it feels scientific – you will understand the method behind the Magic that makes a good teacher or good documentary, or great BBQ assembly manual. You will also find that many of the things that are sacred, like Accuracy, can hinder an explanation. In fact, this is where we find it the most challenging when working with clients – there is often no place for high-resolution HD accuracy when an impressionist painting of a concept is what’s needed. The broad strokes, not the bristles. I’ll get into that next time: what is the Right Kind of Accuracy?

In the meantime, have a look at the book if you have Explanation as part of your day. It’s not just for Outreach people, it’s for anyone giving a presentation or sharing an idea – who want other people to be interested, to be curious; and really, that’s the soul of communication.

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