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Be On The Books: “The Art of Explanation”

August 11th, 2016

“Be on the Books” is a regular series in which Braithwaite staff break down what they learned from the best business and marketing books.

Business people have a lot of explaining to do. Literally. We’re always explaining products to customers, explaining new initiatives to colleagues, or explaining what it is we do all day to our higher-ups.

The problem is, explaining something effectively is a skill, but we rarely think of it that way. We do it without thinking, and when we don’t explain something well, we create confused customers, disengaged employees, and unimpressed executives.

Consider this story from Lee LeFever’s excellent 2013 book “The Art of Explanation: Making Your Ideas, Products and Services Easier to Understand.” A woman named Emma at a large clothing retailer needs to send a message to her entire company explaining a new health plan. Here’s what she writes:

“Dear Valued Employee,

Our company has a new health plan that will help us manage our health-care expenses and may lower your monthly health-care expenses. It’s called the high-deductible health plan. Here’s how it works: Your monthly premiums are likely to decrease and your deductible will increase when the new plan is implemented. This may help decrease your overall health-care expenses because deductibles are only paid when health-care services are used. …”

This looks like a fine explanation. We’d say that this is probably what 90 percent of companies would write, and many wouldn’t be comfortable doing anything else. Frankly, this actually one of the better memos of this kind that we’ve seen.

In Emma’s case, she received almost no response, including no sign-ups for the new plan, which would help the company save a lot of money. Many people didn’t understand what a deductible was and why it mattered. They didn’t care, and it seemed like a lot of effort to learn more.

What was wrong with this explanation? LeFever, the founder of Common Craft, a company that makes video explainers, would say that this isn’t actually an explanation. It’s a description, a direct account of the facts of the plan. Descriptions are only part of an explanation, which describes facts in a way that makes them understandable.

An explanation, which LeFever explains throughout the book, uses context, stories, connections and other techniques to make communications clear, memorable and compelling. A great explanation also utilizes visuals and multimedia tools that can make information easier to digest.

In the above example, the team thought through the issue, step-by-step, working to understand what they fundamentally wanted to say, what their audience already knew about the subject, and how they could craft their message in a way to get people to care. Using technology almost every office worker has, they were able to create a simple slideshow with a voiceover that functioned much like a video, explaining the plan in three minutes. It was a huge success, with people suddenly seeking to learn more, and the company exceeding its goals for enrolling employees in the new plan.

There’s no magic in creating effective communications like this, but there is an art. In that sense, LeFever is certainly an explanation artist, and he practices what he preaches in The Art of Explanation. We highly recommend this book to our clients, and it’s basically required reading here in our office. Here are some more of our team members favorite ideas.

Lee Procida, Senior Account Executive

This book probably has more relevance to what we do on a day-to-day basis than almost any other business book out there. Helping companies communicate better, whether with media, customers, employees and any other group of stakeholders is the essence of what we do.

There are a few ideas in here that are essential for understanding effective communication, such as “the curse of knowledge,” the role of stories, and the explanation scale, which is a simple way of charting what your audience already knows and determining how much more explanation they need.

One of the most memorable parts of the book for me, the one that immediately resonated with me as a problem that so many businesses are guilty of, was an anecdote from a conference in Silicon Valley. This was back in 2004, and a CEO was giving a speech in which he mentioned RSS a few times. Someone asked, “What’s RSS?” The CEO responded, “Oh, RSS is an XML-based content syndication format.” The audience member lowered his hand and the CEO moved on.

But, of course, that didn’t answer the question at all. The audience member knew even less about XML. Even though that answer was technically correct, it offered nothing in terms of explanation. Unfortunately, this is how many businesses and experts answer questions from customers and colleagues. LeFever calls it the direct approach, which answers questions with a direct statement of fact, rather than providing any additional context.

“A skilled explainer learns to see the intent behind the question and formulate an answer that focuses on understanding instead of efficiency,” LeFever says. “They answer questions like ‘What is this’ as if the questions was ‘Why should I care about this?’”

Taking that approach, here’s how the RSS answer could have gone: “RSS makes it easy to subscribe to websites so that new content comes directly to you.” Maybe if there were more explanations like that, RSS might still be around.

As a side note, this book features one of the most effective uses of QR Codes I’ve ever seen. Since the author’s company, Common Craft, makes video explainers, there are QR Codes throughout the book that seamlessly link directly to videos they’ve created. I scanned every single one, and had a much better understanding by doing so.

Joe McIntyre, Senior Account Executive

The “explanation scale” that LeFever describes is a really useful tool I’d personally like to use more often. It’s essentially a way to visualize what your audience already knows, how much you want them to know, and how much explanation you need to move them. It also helps illustrate where past explanations have fallen short, and what opportunities exist. Here’s a photo from the book:

Essentially, you lay out your potential audiences based on how much of your subject they likely already understand, and chart other explanations based on how much information they cover. If existing explanations already assume some level of understanding, maybe there’s an opportunity to attract more customers who need a more essential explanation to get them to care about the subject in the first place.

This can also validate whether you need to focus more on the “why” of your message for people with less of an understanding, or more of the “how” for people with more of a baseline understanding. Many companies only explain how their products work without ever talking about the why, which is ultimately necessary to get people to even want to know how. Using this very simple sketch can clearly show the need for a different approach.

Brendan McCabe, Marketing Intern

My favorite chapter was “Simplification,” which includes these guidelines for transforming a complex bundle of details into big, understandable ideas:

  • Do not make assumptions about what people already know.
  • Use the most basic language possible.
  • Zoom out and try to see the subject from the broadest perspective possible.
  • Forget the details and exceptions and focus on big ideas.
  • Trade accuracy for understanding.
  • Connect the basic ideas to ideas the audience already understands.

It’s not always easy to follow those directions. If we’re trying to explain a complex idea, or one that we are very knowledgeable about, it’s hard to boil it all down into a few essential ideas. It can also be frustrating if we feel that our audience should know more about a subject. But if we want to make an effective explanation, this shows that the KISS principle we all learned in elementary school still applies today – keep it simple, stupid.

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