Monthly Archives: January 2007

Let me explain

I’m a sucker for a good explanation. A well-timed, well-crafted explanation can spark brilliant ideas, lead you down a new career track, or help you solve a gargantuan problem.

Bad explanations are real trouble. A bad explanation at the wrong moment can block a train of thought, steer a promising project off course or shut your mind off from a subject forever.

To me, a “good explanation” is a clear, satisfying and true presentation of what makes something — a concept, a principle, a machine, a process — the way it is. For example, a good explanation can be an illustration of how the pieces in a machine work together, a primer on tricky scientific principles, or an essay arguing a psychological theory. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive in detail. For most subjects, that’s not feasible. It just needs to paint a complete picture.

When you explain something well, you understand what your audience already knows and pick your definitions, examples, analogies and illustrations carefully to build on that. You employ just-in-time delivery of information. You add a new fact only when your audience already knows enough to put it in context. Most of all, you establish a foundation of understanding.

This foundation is why good explanations are so wonderful and crucial to me. I’m terrible at holding onto facts until I have a foundation to build on. Technical jargon evaporates into the air if I don’t understand the guts of a machine. Numbers mean nothing to me until I see how they fall on a larger scale. If you want to see me really stupefied, try explaining the rules of a card game without giving me the ultimate objective first. It all sounds like Peanuts parents to me. I’m an extreme case — my blockage of out-of-context information verges on learning disability — but I think this quality is generally true of anybody. Even an imperfect model of how something works makes it much easier to gather more information.

There are many, many things you just won’t get until somebody does a good job explaining them to you. So it’s no exaggeration to say that human progress (personal and species-wide) depends on good explanations. That’s why it troubles me how often people jump into relaying information without establishing a foundation of explanation at all. It’s common to see TV news anchors cheerily distribute facts without providing any sort of larger context. Business life is rotten with PowerPoints that rattle off figures and acronyms without making an argument for anything in particular. Many general interest technology sites bombard the reader with tricky terminology, but skimp on defining what it means.

One reason for this is that crafting a good explanation often means going against the grain. News stories are supposed to be short, because TV watchers and newspaper readers supposedly have no attention span. Business jerks agree that business means getting down to the bottom line and sounding important. And of course only noobs need to stop for definitions. Taking the time to lay out a good explanation means asking for deeper attention from your audience and acknowledging that not everybody knows everything already. It’s rarer than it should be, so we should sing its praises when we see it.

Hence, Explainist.com, a celebration of explanation. Full credit to Explainist co-founder Dave for the brilliant name. Here we go.