The Art of Explanation
Explaining things to audience is a big part of many talks and presentations whether you want to teach, convince, persuade or argue your point. The book, The Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever (great name), focuses on the concept of explanation itself and improving your ability to explain things to people.
The three key stages the book outlines are:
We start with what an explanation is and what it’s not. This was less useful than I had hoped. For example, an explanation is not a description, definition or instruction. Got that? Ok. So what are explanations then?
“…explanation is the practice of packaging facts into a form that makes them easier to understand.” (my italics)
That’s it in a nutshell. “Explanations make facts more understandable”. As an explanation, I thought it might have been more analytical if not a little bit more helpful. It’s a letdown. I know this already.
The basic difference, however, is intent. I, who understand, am trying to make things clearer by putting myself in someone else’s shoes, who does not understand. This is different from giving you a definition, say, where I could give a highly technical and jargon-laden sentence which, though technically correct, leaves you, the uninitiated, completely mystified.
Personally, I feel all this could all have been contained in a page or two at most but because the author’s book is called “The Art of Explanation” he seems to feel duty bound the dwell on the concept and give it more real estate than it actually in fact deserves.
The benefits of explanation by contrast are well put. A good explanation:
• Lowers the cost of understanding (some things take time to work out if you’re not an expert on the subject. You don’t know where to begin. Someone who’s been there and done it can make the process a whole lot easier )
• Makes you care (Ah, now I see why this is important. I’m going to have to give that a try)
As for the rest of the book, there is some helpful stuff:
• The explanation scale (A-Z) is a useful concept in terms of who you are directing your explanation towards .
• Using a story or case study is well explained: We need to explain the Big Idea. A way of explaining the Big Idea is through something we can all readily identify with: A Goal. Person has problem. They need to solve the problem. The solve it using the Big Idea.
• Using Analogy and Connections is very useful. You start an explanation with what your audience knows already. You then build from that point. Your grandparent doesn’t understand email. Start with what he knows: “You know how you send a letter by mail? Email is the same except the computer sends the mail for you”. You build on existing understanding of a different concept and extend that to the concept you wish to explain.
A Few Moans
• The author is fond of using the phrase “packaging” to explain explanations. We package ideas and facts into explanation. It all seems a little self-indulgent as if he’s savouring the words and the very idea.
• Frequent mentioning of his wife isn’t helpful. It doesn’t add anything or make the facts clearer; that is, it doesn’t help the explanation.
• The same with the author’s website Common Craft. I would expect the book not to indirectly promote the website as I’ve bought the book and feel like it should be reasonably self-contained.
A fairly good book but should be trimmed way down. “Bringing an explanation together” is probably the best chapter as it shows the whole process in action. From that you could have extrapolated the other main points, which could have formed an abbreviated ebook. The last section, on which media is best to present your explanation (text, PowerPoint, video), just seems like padding.
Quite useful but the book seems stretched out too far.